Saturday, 29 May 2010

The Zen of Epynt

On the cover is a black and white photograph taken somewhere in Epynt. It shows a tree and a sort of corrugated sentry box. Inside the box, on guard against the elements, are two sheep. The pic is by Magnum photographer David Hurn. What does it mean? That’s like asking what the sound is of one hand clapping or the look of your real face before you were born. This is the cover of my latest collection of poetry, Zen Cymru. Hurn’s photograph sums that up. The zen of Welsh life, the unanswerable, the ever present, the one we know.

A friend, picking up this neat slim vol for the first time, told me that the cover was where the book’s strength lay. Support when you need it. The cover is the only part not by me.

The book collects new poems from the past several years. Age, passion, spiritual searching, house fires, hospitals, guns. Poems about hunting down Buddha, Christ’s arrival in Cardiff in 2005 and the title sequence, a pared-down haiku sequence that rolls from Splott to Abereiddi and back.

But that’s certainly not all. There are music poems. Folk singer, late Phil Ochs’s only visit to Cardiff. The trial of Phil Spector. Sightings of Elvis in Merthyr. The grave of Bela Bartok among the bushes in Hungary. On the train from Severn Tunnel Junction with John Tripp and Bob Dylan. I’ve always found music completely enveloping. I could never work without it, never compose without something playing out there, keeping my thoughts on their central zen track.

As expected a number of the poems have Cardiff concerns. Included is the text that makes up the acrostic construct made from the various ways the capital’s name have been spelled through history. The final version is in the paving outside John Lewis. The original of The Ballast Bank, a poem about the city population’s origins, sits carved in rock outside South Wales Police Headquarters on James Street.

Kerdif lists some of the city’s great street characters – Everyone from Peg the Wash to bin-banger Ninjah and Toy Mic Trevor.

Looking at the content with the detachment that distance gives – nothing more I can do now, the thing is out – I can see that there’s much about death and the fight of life against decrepitude. Miro is in there. So is Llywelyn Goch ap Meurig Hen. Unexpectedly for some there’s also a handy index to the Holiday Timeshare Sellers Handbook. Number of times they say it isn’t actually a timeshare – 432. References to luxury – 34. Mentions of rain – 1.

It’s a book that again treads the thin line between tradition and innovation. Just when you think you’ve got it the ground shifts. Then shifts again. Zen Cymru is published by Seren Books.

A version of this post appeared as The Insider in the Western Mail of Saturday 29th May, 2010. Zen Cymru launches at Hay on Tuesday 1st June, 8.00 pm on the Dream Stage where Peter finch will be reading and in conversation with John Goodby.

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