Steve Whitaker, Literary Editor

Poem Of The Week: 'Hiraeth' By Natalie Rees

Lough Gur
Lough Gur

I am looking for a word
that will take me back
to you, to us, to before.

It comes to me in skin.
A scratch of your watch
across my collar bone

to rest your book on the floor;
a sip from the glass
on our only bedside locker.

I am looking for a word
to skirr me away from
the face masks and death counts,

to the crannógs and dolmens
and our winter breath
meeting in stone circles

at the foot of Lough Gur.
To point me to the path winding
from Bourchier’s castle to your car,

where we scrape the mud
from the grips of our boots with twigs
and make the half-hour drive into town.

And we sit and do the crossword
over a pint in Collins’ bar
after the milk market

just before it gets busy.
And you read me the clue.
Seven letters. Welsh.

Homesickness for a home
to which you cannot return.
A home which maybe never was.

A perfect metaphor for the pandemic’s wider philosophical questions, ‘Hiraeth’ – a Welsh expression that encapsulates an abstract longing for home – might, by association, also describe a sense of deracination and existential purpose foregrounded in reflection. For Covid-19 and its attendant restrictions occasion a fragmentation of will in many, an unravelling of the kinds of social connectors that enable meaningful communication and emotional bonding.

Bourchier Tower
Bourchier Tower
Natalie Rees’ fine poem of love and loss of language, of the power to maintain cultural inheritance through language, is dislocated by circumstances; her beautifully tempered tercets cling uncertainly to the wreckage of places in memory, temporal spaces fleshed out approximally, in weakened half-rhymes – ‘skin / bone’, ‘Gur / car’ – as if struggling to shore up a failing pulse. Her narrator falls into an avenue of memory as a natural recourse, an antidote to the relentlessness of obsession and endurance, of ‘face masks and death counts’.

Her removal to an Ireland of ancient burial mounds and Dark Age fortresses is an affirmation of ancestral continuity as natural as the instinct to survive; bespeaking a long history, the thought fixes a memory in amber, at a time of strange disquiet.

The loved object, the figure towards whom the narrator cleaves, adds a layer of ambiguity to Rees’ melancholic contemplation: is he or she lost forever, or separated from this home, or perhaps another elsewhere, by conditions we are obliged to share? Does the elegiac narcosis of ‘Hiraeth’ blindside us with a sense of loss reified by the material detail of memory? Is our connection with a place of origin, of home, in the end illusory?

‘Hiraeth’ is taken from Corona Ceoil the forthcoming anthology from Leeds Irish Health & Homes.

Natalie Rees’ latest collection is Low Tide, and is published by Calder Valley Poets.

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