from Poetry Wales, Summer 2012
My first engagement with Ruth Bidgood's poetry took place when New Welsh Review's then-editor, Francesca Rhydderch, asked me to review Bidgood's 2004 volume New & Selected Poems for the magazine. Looking back now at the notes I made on the volume is interesting. Little more than twenty pages into the poetry itself, I find my scribbled assessment that 'these are, absolutely, well-balanced poems, gently languaged into being without fuss or pyrotechnics'. A few pages later, at the end of the early piece 'Burial Path', I discover a startled exclamation about the 'almost mythic descent into darkness' that this particular poem seems to detail. Elsewhere, I was struck by Bidgood's anti-Arcadian 'refusal of pastoral' as well as her sense of the importance of stone (ruins, in particular), and was obviously moved by a number of poems—'Cardiganshire Story' being a case in point, with its bleak vision of the mid-Wales hills and its story of how an unnamed woman struggles through the night with her new-born child: 'The baby died, of course, / his first night was his last'. I suggested to myself that there is a sort of conflict in Bidgood's work between 'innocence-in-landscape and danger', as I wrote at the foot of 'Slate Quarry, Penceulan'—a poem which is notable for its disturbing rendition of a 'brittle hill' (a field of ostensibly 'untroubled green catching the sun', below which is a 'chamber whose functional hugeness / amazes, whose dark hollowness / rears up close under sunny grass'). And, significantly, I find that I sketched out a number of notes which seem to highlight the crucial issue of historical memory. Thus, against the following lines from 'Nant-y-Cerdin' which ask—
Could there ever be a morning unhaunted,
a spring shining
with no sunlight but its own?
—I indicated that I thought Bidgood was bound up with the 'perpetual history of the present', the sense that the present moment is, always and inevitably, caught in the past. Moreover, echoing the poet's important sense that 'shade [is] necessary for the picture' (as she put it in an interview published in 1990), I observed that 'Lamentations and Memory' might well be a good title for my eventual review.
Some years on from these initial notes, I am deeply engaged with the work of this unassuming writer whose first volume of poetry, The Given Time (1972), did not appear until the year the author herself turned fifty. Forty years down the line from that initial book, Bidgood's thirteenth collection, called Above the Forests, appears from Blaenau Ffestiniog's Cinnamon Press this summer. Trying to explain quite why you enjoy a poet's work can be challenging. But I find it simple in this case, and from a number of different perspectives: I like the easy, conversational style of Bidgood's poetry, which creates its effects without any need to resort to the post-Martian straining after startling imagery that has become all too familiar in the UK since the 1980s; as a parallel to this, I enjoy her signature long, winding sentences that often spill so easily from line to line; I like the fact that she doesn't seem to need to protect her work beneath layers of irony, which means that her poetry has what is, for me, an appealing emotional openness; I am significantly drawn to her subject-matter, which delves deep into the stories, people and land of the mid-Wales region with which she is most importantly identified; and finally, I am often moved by the frequent darkness of her perspectives. Glyn Mathias caught something that I think is central to all of this when, in the aftermath of Bidgood winning the prestigious Roland Mathias Prize in 2011, he suggested that her 2009 volume Time Being 'packs such an emotional punch. The quality of writing is sustained throughout, and yet she makes it look so easy.' But I think that it is Paul Groves who has got closest to the heart of what Bidgood has achieved, when he suggested (in a review of her 1996 collection The Fluent Moment) that 'This is poetry at its purest, unpolluted by dross'. This is genuinely insightful commentary: there is nothing flashy about Bidgood's work, as Merryn Williams has so acutely pointed out; there is little particular display; the writing is calm and measured; form is handled with relaxed ease; and yet the emotional impact of her work is persistently strong.
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Ruth Bidgood in 1997
Photo by Bertrand Mitchell
Ruth Bidgood (née Jones) was born on 20 July 1922, in the mining village of Seven Sisters, Glamorgan, but her poetic life did not start until she was in her forties. Describing herself as a 'very early reader', she recalls youthful acquaintance with the work of Shelley, though was clearly rather more struck by Christmas annuals—a particular childhood pleasure, it seems—and melodramatic nineteenth-century novels such as Sabine Baring-Gould's Eve. Having come under the influence of Philip Burton (Richard Burton's mentor) at school in Port Talbot, Bidgood went on to study English literature at Oxford, but poetic production was certainly not the upshot of the literary-critical engagement that her degree involved. Following World War II service life in the WRNS (as a coder), and then marriage in 1946, Bidgood gave over the next couple of decades to being a full-time mother in the London area. However, in 1964, a small legacy meant that she and her husband were able to buy a house in the north Breconshire village of Abergwesyn. The house was Tyhaearn, a corrugated iron bungalow, where the family stayed regularly during holiday times and which became Bidgood's full-time home after divorce in 1974. It was Bidgood's arrival in Abergwesyn in the mid-1960s that was to be the spur for both the poetic production and the local history research for which she has subsequently become known. In a 1999 interview with Jason Walford Davies she has described how, following her arrival in mid-Wales, she found 'the call of the land and the ruins—drawing me up the side-valleys into the remains of communities'. And it was this call which, from around 1965, seemed abruptly to bring her writing into being.
Although Bidgood's first collection was not to appear until 1972, she had an energetic publication life in periodicals over the last few years of the 1960s. Interestingly, though, her poetry in this earliest period appeared more frequently in countryside magazines (Country Life, The Countryman, Country Quest) than it did in primarily literary magazines. Thus, and rather setting this initial pattern, the Wrexham-edited Country Quest was, in June 1967, the location of her very first published poem. This was the piece 'Tree-felling', which constitutes a sharp critique of landscape changes that were bound up with the forestry policies visited upon Wales in the couple of decades immediately following World War II. Describing a scene in which men are 'felling the oaks' on a 'rainy hill', Bidgood writes of how:
A great black horse drags the logs in chains,
Wrenching strong hoofs from the mud.
Mist, and blue smoke from burning brushwood,
And steam from the sweating, struggling horse,
Soften the yellow of cut wood,
And mask raw mutilation.
There has been a tendency to see Bidgood as a rather gentle sort of poet. Indeed, this is precisely how John Tripp reacted to her first collection, when he argued that The Given Time created 'a pleasant picture of a region [the poet] is obviously wedded to'. Moreover, my own opening observations might appear to suggest this sort of perspective, too, in my sense of her work being 'gently languaged into being'. However, there is a persistent brutality to aspects of that mid-Wales work which is the core of Bidgood's poetic output that runs emphatically contrary to such notions. Thus, the longer poem 'Valley-before-Night' (from the new material in the 1992 volume Selected Poems) is shot through with darkness in its gothic focus on prefigured deaths amongst the residents of the Camarch Valley, in its awareness of the death of farms through depopulation, and in its articulation of the need to be safely in a house after dark in this particular place. Even one of the poet-speaker's own grandchildren is marked by this darkness, having been out to watch the 'ritual kill' of a hunt. Although the poem indicates that the child's spirits are quickly restored through play with his siblings, 'the still moment with its burden of death' does not disappear, but is rather 'given to the river flowing always / through night at the back of the mind'. It is this sense that life is significantly defined by darkness that was what, I think, struck me so forcibly about the end of the early poem 'Burial Path' (from The Given Time), which describes an arduous funeral journey in which the deceased woman is carried over miles of mid-Wales hills to her eventual burial-place in Abergwesyn. Initially, the woman's husband finds himself uplifted by the communal ritual that the journey involves and, as the poem's speaker, he talks of 'the coffin riding / effortlessly the surge of effort', even though 'forty times and more / I put my shoulder to the coffin / before the weary journey was accomplished'. However, when the burial itself has taken place and the community has dispersed, the widower turns for home:
Now as I went down Rhiw'rYch alone [ ... ]
It was then my heart cracked, Sian, my spirit
went into that darkness and was lost.
There is a similar sensibility at work in the later poem 'Rhyd y Meirch' (another piece from the new material in Selected Poems), which roots the Camddwr Valley in blood and slaughter:
All names in this quiet valley speak of war—
Rhyd y Meirch, ford of war-horses:
Rhiw Felen, blood-coloured hill;
Maes Galanas, field of slaughter.
What is more striking than this, however, is the poem's concentration on a recent inhabitant of the valley whose mind is somehow stained by the eleventh-century Battle of Camddwr in which the piece is historically rooted. A young farmer finds himself unable to cope with the 'tortured births / and messy deaths' of the animals that are his day-to-day business, and 'turn[s] sick / at the gush and smell of the blood' which is so frequently involved. Listening in chapel one day to a sermon on the 'blood-washing of sins', the young man seems to suffer a moment of acute emotional crisis and runs outside:
Hunched in drizzle
on wet grass, I saw again the painted words
over the pulpit, 'Duw cariad yw';
and muttered like a fool
'Wash me in rain, my God, my God,
Wash me in rain'.
However, it is not just this one individual who is tortured by the blood and violence of the valley's past. Rather, as the poem finishes, the place itself seems to be tormented, and obsessively so, by its history, as the speaker observes how 'The valley's windblown rain / washes and washes at the stain.' The present moment is, for Bidgood, crucially in the grip of the past. Or as she puts it in the opening poem of her very first collection—in a phrase that both Jeremy Hooker and Donald Allchin have used almost to define her work—the here and now is nothing less than 'the haunted present'.
Of course, not all of Bidgood's work is underpinned by darkness. Indeed, at points she seems to reach out to a sense of transcendent light, such as in the poem 'Chwefru' (The Fluent Moment, 1996), in which the poet-speaker specifically sets out to create an 'emblem' from 'wings and light' as a sort of counterbalance to the bleaker tendencies of a friend who is 'Too well acquainted with the mind's dark'. The upshot is a poem which seems to suggest a kind of Christ-like ascension, as butterflies rise upwards into light before her friend's eyes:
There they went, rising in a whirligig,
fluttering into the invisibility
of huge light. I remember how his eyes
tracked them, till tears of dazzle blurred
stream and moor, and the butterflies were gone.
Indeed, there is a vein of celebration that runs through the whole of Bidgood's work which, although by no means dominant, forms an important element within her overall output. Her early poem 'Llanddewi Hall, Radnorshire' (from The Given Time) catches something of this in its speaker's pleasure in the eponymous house (which dates from around 1550): she dwells on 'cool, thick walls' and 'polished stair', and suggests that Llanddewi Hall has in some way contained a positive power which has worked against the weaknesses of those who have lived there ('the strength of the house [was] / A reassurance and somehow a redemption'). Moreover, Bidgood even goes so far as to suggest that residents of the Hall have found that saying goodbye to it in death has been hard precisely because they 'thought imagined heavens less beautiful than this'. And again, in the poem's final stanza the house becomes nothing less than a sort of consolatory haven for the dead as 'the place of comfort' to which they may return. Of course, there is manifestly a romantic element in such material, and the house here is clearly idealised in the always-nurturing relationship that the poem presents it as having had with its inhabitants. Nonetheless, I confess that I find the warmth of the vision here extremely engaging. Moreover, the basic point about Bidgood's poetic tendencies remains entirely clear: alongside the darkness, there is also light and celebration in her work. Indeed, the piece 'Girls Laughing' (Lighting Candles, 1982) is almost overwhelmed by this latter tendency as the two girls pictured by the poem, attempting to fold a sheet, are reduced to almost uncontrollable laughter by the 'bulging unstable exuberance / stretched between them'.
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Prior to this summer's new volume, Bidgood's two most recent collections have been Hearing Voices (Cinnamon, 2008) and the prize-winning, Poetry Book Society recommendation Time Being (Seren, 2009). The former is an important reminder that an intriguing element which spans the breadth of Bidgood's poetic career to date has been an interest in found poetry—work that has been created from material that she has drawn substantially from letters and diaries in the Shrewsbury Archives. The result has been described by Peter Finch as a 'satisfying flicker through the lives and loves of people past', and this is absolutely right: what Bidgood achieves in her found work is a strict putting to one side of her own voice (although, as Finch observes, 'Like all good poets she interferes with what she has discovered to make the text work') and a consequent presentation of past lives, in effect, from the inside. The results typically present some striking voices, such as in the appropriately titled three-part poem 'Elizabeth Lochard Grumbles to her Sister':
I desire to know
what it is of my Mother's
that is in my keeping
that you demand.
Indeed, the early poem 'Herbal' takes a domestic list and turns it into something which, in its pleasure in words themselves, quite unexpectedly recalls the effect of Bob Cobbing's famous sound-based poem 'Alphabet of Fishes':
Mint, saladin, clare,
Fennel, sweetfern, sage red,
Pillotar of the Wall,
Dragones, scabious, rue
Admittedly, this is an unusual piece in the context of Bidgood's overall output, but it shows her to be a poet for whom the attractions of language-in-itself are very definitely alive.
Time Being, of course, was the collection for which Bidgood was awarded the 2011 Roland Mathias Prize. In it, we find the poet coming to terms with her eventual departure from Abergwesyn (she moved a few miles down the road to Beulah in 2002), as she returns to the Irfon Valley in 'Back'. Here, then, in an unusually confessional piece, Bidgood considers 'Others [who] over centuries had left' the place:
I had not thought
to be one of them, and now
felt an irrational need
to forgive myself.
More than this, the poem's speaker ends by imagining a still-friendly valley that is—to her apparent relief—not angered by her departure:
seemed uncensorious. Today
all the valley's imagined words
were warm. I sat by the stream
However, another poem which sounds similarly confessional, 'Morning', is not. Depicting a woman whose lover is leaving, Bidgood has noted that this piece has 'been (quite wrongly) interpreted as being about my husband leaving me': as she has remarked, a 'bit of autobiography seems to be craved for sometimes!' Rather, this particular poem is a reworking of Glyn Jones's 'Esyllt ferch Brychan', which Bidgood has described as 'a favourite poem of mine'. Here, then, she significantly drains the colour and sunshine from Jones's earlier scene to offer up a world which is substantially in tune with her often-bleak mid-Wales topography:
She had meant not to look out,
but in the low-ceilinged bedroom
the small grudging window
was too available, too near. At first
there was nothing to watch, only wet trees
hiding the downward path.
Then, up the muddy track
beyond the stream, a dwindling form
climbed to the road and was gone.
Interestingly, having unequivocally declared herself 'not a nature poet' in her 1999 interview with Jason Walford Davies, Time Being also suggests a growing poetic concern with the non-human world. Indeed, the poem 'Winter Coming' finds Bidgood focused on the minute detail of seasonal change:
Soon each small withering of leaf,
each miniscule hedgerow difference,
will be like a little boy
running towards us along
the empty road, calling
"It's coming! It's coming!", and we'll hear
at last, far off, drums
and, slowly growing, pulse of the dance.
As her ninth decade draws to its close—and as poems such as those that are newly oriented towards the non-human world would suggest—Bidgood's writing continues to display significant and interesting developments. Indeed, she tells me that she is producing fresh work at a rate of a poem or two a month, so the practice of her poetry remains resolutely ongoing. Bidgood is a writer who has never courted literary celebrity and she probably remains insufficiently appreciated, even here in Wales. However, for her varied and intertwined poetic rendition of mid-Wales alone, for its richness and depth formed over more than four-and-a-half decades of writing, she emphatically deserves recognition as one of Wales's foremost English-language poets of the last fifty years.
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About the Author
Matthew Jarvis is the Anthony Dyson Fellow in Poetry in the School of Cultural Studies, University of Wales Trinity Saint David. His book Ruth Bidgood is published in the UWP 'Writers of Wales' series this summer.
Editor: Zoë Skoulding