From the Welsh Diaspora
Bread without Butter Bara heb Fenyn explores the cultural and emotional heritage of poet Wendy French, raised in England whose mother immigrated from Wales as a young woman. The poet maintained a close connection to grandparents, her Mamgu and Tadcu, and their farm at Bwlchydomen. The title encapsulates this poetry that celebrates what sustains–bread, the staff of life; yet something is missing. The book interrogates the experience of diaspora: how culture transmits, the loss of that culture, the role and meaning of language, the divergence of moral values, and the struggle to convey that culture to one’s increasingly assimilated children and grandchildren.
The collection begins appropriately with a poem entitled Hiraeth, a word that doesn’t translate well into English: homesickness, longing, nostalgia.
Mamgu’s voice comes through the night
Stop harrowing me back let me rest
No Mamgu you’re harrowing me
like the farmers ploughed the fields
with their old plough, you harrow me
The language and image are precise. The older meaning of harrowing is used, to bring back the dead, yet it is, in common parlance, harrowing, or frighteningly difficult, to do so. The image of the steel plough, both introduces the family farm, and conveys the way the blade cuts and opens the earth and implies something fertile. The plough is “old”, yet vital. The image of the blade in the soil “undercuts” the idea that this is just about nostalgia. Hiraeth: a word of earth and steel.
The emotional moment that propels the book is the imminent passing of the author’s mother as she herself must soon carry the heritage forward. In Fields (continuing the plowing metaphor), she writes:
My mother, failing fast, mutters
in a language she’d never permit us
to learn, certain it would hold us back–
Similarly in Stories I heard while drying my hair, a poem which ends, “My mother’s distant voice/in the pull of my hairbrush.” Two important themes are introduced in these poems. The first, a language whose teaching England historically prohibited although Welsh has persisted. Children of Welsh, Irish, Native-American, or Yiddish speaking parents (naming a few), were both actively discouraged from learning the language of the homeland, and shied away themselves. The author hears the mother’s (Welsh) voice in the pull of the hairbrush. This, of course, is the pull of hiraeth. Welsh became, for this generation, a language of secrets. In Mamgu and Tadcu:
When other Mamgus came down to the farm
animated with news they didn’t want us to hear
they spoke in Welsh.
Welsh becomes something alluring and revealing.
Religion, explored in other poems, plays a basic role in the life of the past, but it is a spirituality of the land and in hills. London, in contrast, needs prayer. But prayer, in London, the diaspora, is limited to the chapel, not the spirituality that is place specific. The faith the poet seeks is a spirituality of connection. Yet it is memory, the felt-presence of the past, which sustains her against the cold. The cold of the modern world is not colder than that of Bwlchydomen Farm 1959, and yet the poet at times is without the means to warm herself. Bara Brith concludes:
it’s 6 o’clock somehwhere in the world
my father says, quoting Graham Greene
thinking of her ancestors and the pot
that is never empty.
As the poet finds this sustaining solution, the solution must go beyond her. She is mother and mamgu herself. Her dilemma: what the next generation will know. This becomes a central concern of parents and grandparents in the diaspora.
The connections that the poet needs and must make are elusive. In a deeply moving poem Minnows, her boys are fishing for these fleeting fish. Yet it is their mother the poet who remembers the event as she asks, “Did they know I would preserve this moment?”
The acts of imagination through this book in the conjuring and revisiting the past, in the harrowing of ancestors, and in the way the past enters the present and looks to the future, these valiant acts, these callings, need an answer. In our modern era, a mosaic of diasporas, we can never be absolutely certain of the answers.
Owen Lewis is the author of three collections of poetry, Field Light, Marriage Map and Sometimes Full of Daylight, and two pamphlets. best man was the recipient of the 2016 Jean Pedrick Chapbook Prize of the New England Poetry Club. Other prizes include: Second Prize 2018 Wigtown (Scotland) International Poetry Competition; Finalist, 2017 Pablo Neruda Award; and First prize, the 2016 International Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine. His poetry has appeared in Nimrod, Poetry Wales, The Mississippi Review, Southward, The Four Way Review and other journals. He is a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University where he teaches Narrative Medicine in the Department of Medical Humanities and Ethics. Twitter: @owenlewispoet.
You can order Bread without Butter Bara heb fenyn (Rockingham Press) by Wendy French Bread-Without-Butter-Wendy-French