‘Rhiannon’: a poem by John Fuller

JF5 (Paul Stuart)
©Paul Stuart

 
 

    Rhiannon

 

1

 

One evening, having dined in my estate
Among my many men, merry and wise,
I took the air outside the palace, late

In the day, but not too late to lift my eyes
To where the sun still spun his daily heat
Down the tall hill to die where the light dies,

And there talk privately as after meat
Friends talk philosophy, and all are friends
Who eat and sit in concord when they eat.

Drink, too, so that the tongue defends
Its wildest words, and eyes dart quickly to
Obtain agreement, or to make amends.

And so I walked with one who led me through
The darkening gardens to where the grassy ground
Rose up behind the palace. “Not for the view,”

He said, “have men stood here, but soon have found
Themselves with wounds, or else their better fate
Was to see wonders, on this sacred mound.”

 

2

 

“Of wounds,” I said, “I cannot be afraid,
Being now at my ease, in company
Here on Gorsedd Arberth. I have made

My peace with Arawn and the world, and I
Am Lord of Dyfed, and Lord of Hades, too,
But wonders, yes, for wonders I might die.”

I thought that true enough, or almost true.
As though belief in the unlikely were
Simply itself reward for what we do

Daily in life—the things that never stir
The blood beyond a winter afternoon,
Things we expect, mere dull things that occur.

And so that very night, before the moon
Had risen over the heights of Narberth, I
Stood upon the Gorsedd, hoping soon

For visions, trusting that answers might reply
To wishes, that belief might be obeyed
By what it had imagined, by and by.

 

3

 

And sure enough, there passed within the space
Of patience, within my sight, below the trees,
A white horse moving slowly, with a grace

Beyond the animal, as though to please
My looking with its motion. On its back
A woman rode, and she was at her ease.

Her pace was steady, and the rein was slack.
Did she approach, or did she pass below?
Did she depart from, or stay on, the track?

What were her intentions? Did she know
That I was watching her? And might she stop?
My heart knew nothing. Did she come or go?

Nearer and nearer came that clop-clop-clop
And then it faded. Glints of the deepest shade
Of gold, both of her rich dress and the top

Of her retreating head, bright as if made
Of beaten flax, that flowing hid her face,
Grave as it nodded, hastened yet delayed.

 

4

 

A tantalising vision! One to suit
My mood of hope and restless loneliness.
I sent one of the lads in hot pursuit

Of her, to catch her up and to address
Her feelingly, as one would need to praise
Beauty, or in a grateful moment bless

The tenderness of passing things, the day’s
Fullness that is activity’s reward
And ends, as this did, in a sunset’s blaze.

Off he ran. Already I adored
Her, wanted to know her name. But the poor lad
Returned, his errand useless. “Alas, my lord,”

He said, “it’s witchcraft, unless I am going mad.
I ran full tilt. She trotted peaceably.
I thought to speak, but distance was all I had.

Fast as I went, ever as far was she.
Like climbing up a tree to pluck its fruit,
The more I gained, the further she was from me.”

 

5

 

The next day it was much the same, for when
We climbed the Gorsedd and the lady came
Again, once more I sent one of my men

This time to ride below and ask her name
And purpose. He of all my followers
Was a skilled horseman. However, to his shame

He could not catch her up for all his spurs
And urging. Steadily she rode ahead
And though his horse had greater speed than hers

She still kept to that pace, as if she led
A train of ambling beasts to pasture, and he
Still just as far behind. “My lord,” he said,

“There is no reaching her, as you can see,
Whether I try to close on her or make
A move to overtake.” The mystery

Obsessed me. All night, for that lady’s sake
I thought of love, slept only a little, then
Tossed and turned through bird-song, quite awake.

 

6

 

I saw her in my mind, her legs astraddle
As though the spread thighs of themselves gave birth
To her horse’s steady pace. She had no saddle

But pressed her knees into the horse’s girth,
Her hips rolling to that rolling motion
Which is the most like sailing on the earth

And turns a wooded path into an ocean
Where she might heave, and thrust, and glide, and sway
Though still in single purpose, and devotion

To the forwardness that carried her away,
And there were clustered bluebells everywhere
Of that deep blue of the dying of the day

That knows how much of it the eye can bear
In carpeting the green. A talking stream
Was there to be splashed through, and her wild hair

Caught on the branches. Scarlet, gold, and cream
Was her array, and all that fiddle-faddle
The gorgeous nonsense of my waking dream.

 

7

 

I had myself to try the following night
To catch this lady at her game. We dined
As usual, and in the fading light

Exchanged ideas of the appropriate kind,
But I had told my page to have my horse
Ready and saddled, for she was on my mind

And I would find her reasons out by force
If need be. Then at the same time she appeared,
Taking her usual pace and usual course.

So I pursued her. Even as I neared
Her, she without hastening seemed far away
And so I reined, and hailed her, since I feared

Never to overtake her. “Lady, stay.
In the name of all you love, what is your quest?”
I said (or, though I was dazzled, thought to say).

For she had thrown her hood back so the rest
Of her was plain to see, and to my sight,
Of beauty I had ever seen, the best.

 

8

 

Her eyes sought mine as souls before they die
Plead to their killers for a quick release,
And this surprisingly was her reply:

“To you yourself I come, to seek the peace
Of heart and mind, for where and whom and when
I love, not by command nor yet caprice

Will I yield either.” “Who are you, then
(I said) that journeys here so recklessly?”
“I am Rhiannon, daughter of Hefeydd Hên,

And truth it is they do me injury
By choosing a husband for me against my will.
But I refuse. I’ll marry none but thee.”

Strange visitation, that should so fulfil
My own desires, and by that answer bless
My future! Her long body seemed to fill

Like a river’s currents the liquid of her dress.
We were fate’s children. Neither were too shy
To speak, within our dream, our eager yes.

 

9

 

This is where stories end, or where they should:
A woman on a horse, with purpose riding
Up to her glory, out of a little wood.

The woman as a dream, the dream dividing
And subdividing into a stretch of years,
The years themselves, some good, some bad, providing

Nothing but what will be, the hopes and fears
Of ordinary life, the accusations
Of unaccountable liars, the bloody smears

(They said she ate her son!), the expiation
Through seven years beside the mounting block,
The son discovered, the reconciliation . . .

Whispers at night might prove this poppycock.
Some play, with paint, could make it edifying.
A wonder hearts could ever withstand the shock!

Her breath was sweet as fennel, no denying,
And she was mightily misunderstood.
To think this was my story—terrifying!

 

10

 

And what are stories after all, besides
The sense we make of our perceived mischances
And time’s abrupt betrayals, like the tide’s

Draining retreats and thunderous advances
That change the implications of the shore
Which fairies lately printed with their dances?

The stories tell us fairies dance no more,
Our lives no longer blessed by creatures who
Joined hands with us upon their sandy floor

And graced our weddings with their retinue.
Our story’s future is unknowable,
Though everything that happens must be true.

And my Rhiannon was so beautiful
That her degree of beauty shaped my guilt
And shamed the love I felt for her, though full

Of the blood on which all marriages are built.
Furies, not fairies, seal the fate of brides,
And over many brides has blood been spilt.

 
 

John Fuller

About John Fuller

John Fuller's latest volume of poetry is 'The Bone Flowers', a book-length discursive narrative about the death of a fashionable art collector, published by Chatto & Windus to celebrate his 80th birthday in 2017. A Collected Poems (1996) and a New Selected Poems (2012) are also available from Chatto. His new novel, 'The Clock in the Forest', was published by Shoestring Press in February.