Poetry of Loss Literary Residency: Brussels #3 – By Nerys Williams
Border Zones, Bitumen and Boezinghe.
I have now returned to Ireland and can reflect a little on the final days of my last week at Passa Porta and Brussels. Of late, going through border zones and customs have become more symbolic. Due to the UK Referendum of 23 June 2016, I am now looking at my own situation as a Welsh citizen in Ireland. Each time I pass over that burgundy British Passport to an official, I think about the semi-filled form for naturalisation that lives in my study (with its attendant stack of documentation). My work, husband and child are in Ireland but my identity remains as a Welsh-speaking woman. There are diasporic complexities to ideas of citizenship that until the referendum, a great proportion of the UK electorate seemed unaware of. Recently in Ireland, there have been animated accounts on RTE Radio of citizenship ceremonies that are jubilant affairs. In April, The Irish Times reported that there was an increase in British Citizens applying for Irish citizenship resulting from the ‘Brexit Blues’.
On my return from Brussels, I shrug my shoulders at the naturalisation form and think at least I have options. Living in Ireland will enable me to retain what I need, I hope. Duality. And I have access to the Welsh language as part of a child’s zeitgeist. S4C’s Cyw on satellite is one of Wales’s most wonderful ‘exports’. It has secured a Welsh speaking five year-old in Kells, Co Meath. Even if nobody in the playground knows who Dona Direidi may be, surely there are cultural opportunities for a Welsh-Irish fusion child rapper in the Gaeltacht ?
Hedd Wyn had no options. The final days for me as part of the Poetry of Loss Residency were ones of commemoration, in direct and indirect ways. On the 24th May I was proud to attend the opening of the Hedd Wyn Centenary Chair Exhibition in The Flemish Parliament. The original Gadair Ddu (or Black Chair) won by Hedd Wyn posthumously was designed, made and carved by a Belgian refugee Eugene Van Fleteren from Mechelen for the 1917 Birkenhead Eisteddfod. Mechelen, I am told is the home of traditional cabinet making in Belgium. Young furniture design students have created this new commission. The winning commission’s structure consists of two salvaged railway sleepers cut in half. A ghost of a linear carving is inscribed on each. The physical gap in between both sleepers creates a reverse tripod on the chair’s back. The underside of the sleepers retains a history– they are covered with a dark stain, which looks like bitumen. The chair’s arms are smoked oak. Sleepers were of course used to prop the tunnels and walkways of the WW1 trenches. The spaces that once secured enormous rivets, now look like bullet holes. I find the chair’s starkness and brutal shape, fitting. The gaps between the sections emphasise that this is very much an empty, evacuated chair. During the launch all observe a minute’s silence.
This is also the day that President Trump arrives in Brussels, to attend a NATO meeting the following day. The barricades are out and that evening there is a large protest march through the city. Colourful placards, musical instruments, horns, tannoys and pink pussy hats all find their way to Place de La Bourse. This night I notice that the spire of the Hotel de Ville at La Grande Place is bathed in multi-coloured lighting. Living these three weeks in Brussels, I was struck by the everyday military presence in the city. Lorries of armed soldiers uncomfortably spend their lunch break under their khaki canvases. Soldiers are relied upon to monitor public spaces bustling with commuters, tourists and public entertainers. From that uneasy ‘truce’ between military observation and public space comes a very uneasy poem. A draft of ‘The Fox in the Square’ begins to shape on my page. One phrase kept reiterating in my head ‘the softness of their bodies’. I keep coming back to the unarmed body; the central image is of dancers dancing in the square, supervised by military hardware.
In 1916 the British government decided that soldiers would be buried where they died; families would not have the right to demand the return of combatants’ bodies for burial. Travelling by train towards Ypres, to visit Artillery Wood the burial ground for both Hedd Wyn and Francis Ledwidge, I am struck by how war cemeteries appear unexpectedly, sometimes near the side of the road, sometimes in the middle of an expansive field. Each gravestone’s height and design is identical, a private can lie next to a general. Even though it is a sweltering day – I decide to walk the five or so mile from Ypres station to the village of Boezinghe. I follow the Canal. Artillery Wood, is one of the smaller cemeteries, and is surrounded by farming land and a couple of houses. Just beyond the cemetery wall is the Francis Ledwidge cycle path.
I see an Irish flag first hovering above the Ledwidge memorial, over the hedge. Ledwidge worked as a farmer’s help, a council road worker and a copper miner. He was killed in Bozeinghe by a stray shell, having endured and survived Gallipoli. Known as a pastoral poet- or ‘the poet of the blackbirds’, I was glad to hear birdsong around the monument and threshing in the fields. However, Ledwidge’s later poems offer a pastoralism that is scarred by the traumas of modernity.
Some hundred yards away is Hedd Wyn’s grave, identifiable by a small Welsh dragon flag that someone has left. There is also a plastic poppy wreath with a card from Castellau Primary School, Beddau. I could only think to bring the poet an item he never got to see during his short lifetime. I take out from my rucksack the small cloth bag that holds my copy of Hedd Wyn’s posthumous volume Cerddi’r Bugail (The Shepherd’s Lyrics). I open it and place it before the grave. The volume was published in 1918 financed by money raised in the Trawsfynydd community. Neighbours and critics also collected the scattered poems. Many were elegies for the young dead. No doubt the poet was sickened by the poems he found himself writing for the numb families of Trawsfynydd, given as gifts of grief and small talismans for the future. I read one of the poems ’Y Blotyn Du’. I take a photo of the book resting on the Boezinghe soil. Its pages rustle in time to small eddies of wind.
Nerys Williams undertook a three-week literary residency in Brussels, exploring the parallels between Hedd Wyn and Irish poet Francis Ledwidge, who both died in Ypres on 31 July 1917. During her time in Flanders, Nerys visited the area surrounding Artillery Wood, where both poets are buried.
Residency Dates: Monday 8 – Sunday 28 May 2017
The wider Barddoniaeth Colled | Poetry of Loss project includes commemorative events in Flanders and Ireland; a writers’ residency exchange between Passa Porta in Brussels and Tŷ Newydd Writing Centre, north Wales; and the production of a new multi-media poetry performance, entitled Y Gadair Wag, to be toured in September 2017. The annual Glyn Jones Lecture was this year be delivered by Ifor ap Glyn at Hay Festival on the subject of Hedd Wyn.
Barddoniaeth Colled | Poetry of Loss is delivered by Literature Wales, funded by the Welsh Government’s Cymru’n Cofio Wales Remembers 1914-1918 First World War Centenary Programme, and in partnership with the Government of Flanders and Snowdonia National Park Authority.
Click here to find out more about Barddoniaeth Colled | Poetry of Loss.