Beautiful Hieroglyphs: A tribute to Ruth Bidgood
Tonight I light candles.
What prayers were waiting
For these new bodies of fire?
Standing outside, I see
upon a dark and turbulent sky
my house launched, with a freight of light.
(From ‘Lighting Candles’)
Ruth Bidgood was one of the quieter voices in Welsh poetry, yet it was a voice both beautifully clear and bell-ringingly insistent. Here was a celebrant of the wind-parched country of mid Wales with its resilient people, its springy mosses and cat-calling buzzards. Her clear, considered words and pellucid poems graced our literature and sang their simple melodies to us for seven decades and will be much missed. As Merryn Williams opined in Poetry Wales, ‘There is nothing in Ruth Bidgood’s poetry that is flashy or fashionable. But in its quiet way it is classic: the “still, sad music of humanity” comes over clearly.’
Born in the village of Blaendulais, Seven Sisters, in the Dulais valley near Neath in 1922, Ruth Bidgood would have been 100 years old this summer. She attended school in Port Talbot, the town in which her father served as the vicar of the parish of Aberafan. After graduating in English from St Hugh’s College, Oxford she worked as a coder for the Womens Royal Naval Service in Alexandria in Egypt before later working for Chambers Encyclopaedia in London.
It all sounds like detailed, precise work, both being qualities of her creative output. This early, peregrinating life was very much removed from her long, settled sojourn in Abergwesyn near Llanwrtyd, where she moved in the 1960s. Here she and her husband had decamped from Surrey to live in a small bungalow with a corrugated iron roof, where the plinking sound of the rain kept them both company and eventually trickled its way into the verse.
Ruth soon settled into the muted rhythms of country life and was soon writing detailed articles on the histories of both Breconshire and Radnorshire, including many articles about the 16th century Llanddewi Hall and a book-length history of Abergwesyn called, appropriately enough, Parishes of the Buzzard. She also kept up the production of a steady stream of poems – which ran clear and ringingly true like the rivers Gorlech, Tarell, Camarch and Irfon with their beds of sharp flint and runs of small trout near her Powys home.
There were poems about country funerals, searching for ancient graves among high, ‘arid acres,’ and commemorating the ‘unremembered’ people of the area – experiences that, according to Eddie Wainwright in Envoi magazine, took ‘on a symbolic resonance…this element gives the poetry a substance and credibility which the unobtrusively exact language everywhere embodies.’
Ruth Bidgood was a patient examiner, a careful historian and a passionate celebrant of the area’s ways of life, charting the variegated tapestry of its landscape and the patterns of farming, the formal punctuations of country funerals, and of nature’s seasons as the years turned, here where even the ‘land seemed like a sojourner.’ A place that old.
Fellow poet and academic Professor Matthew Jarvis, who wrote a fine, full-length study of Ruth Bidgood’s work for the Writers of Wales series, argued that her poems – eventually gathered between the covers of over 15 volumes – constitute one continuous epic poem about mid Wales and its people, all written by a poet described by Professor Jane Aaron as one possessed of ‘subtle complexities.’
The titles of some of her poems map out the terrain she explored so assiduously and with such astute attention;- ‘Allt yr Hebog’ ‘Rhyd y Meirch,’‘At Strata Florida,’ ‘Turner’s Painting of Hafod,’ ‘Old Pump House, Llanwrtyd Wells,’ ‘Merthyr Clydawg,’ ‘Cwmioie,’ ‘Capel y Ffin’ and ‘Llyn y Fan Fach.’ Many of them record visits to rural churches and chapels where she lists the buried and the dead, as if she is re-populating these often remote places with the memories of those who worked there and farmed the often bitter land.
She visited ‘heron-haunted’ lakes and fading houses, noted the quiet sibilance of the wind as it whispered through molinia grass. She encountered the ‘sharp wings’ of red kites, found sheep stuck in hedges ‘mad with fright, catapulting at you from a noose of brambles’ and visited the old adits of deserted mines under a ‘sky that trawled for us with nets of drizzle…’
But she was not one who always revelled in the past, although it is a permanent undertow in her work, especially, perhaps, the more turbulent episodes of local history. The present both thrilled and enthralled her and, even sometimes offended her.
She railed against the building of reservoirs or coastal marinas and bristled at the effects of planting uniform plantations of conifers in the area around her home, feelings expressed in her collection The Zombie Makers which appeared in 1970. Poems, thus, of both celebration and sometimes concern were includes in volumes such as The Given Time (1972), Not Without Homage (1975), The Print of Miracle (1978), Time Being (which won the Roland Mathias prize) and Singing to Wolves, which appeared in 2000.
The final volume in her output, Lights, published by Cinnamon Press, was written when Ruth was in her late nineties, showing that her own poetic light remained strong and undiminished, a candle burning bright and well long into life’s evening.
In a poem called simply ‘Stop’ the poet runs her fingers across the names engraved in slate at a local church where she asks herself ‘what is it like to be/never stopped by beauty/knowing something more beautiful?’ She seems to decode the answer from the clues around her – ‘the sunny tombstone’ where a ‘fat green caterpillar promenades’ with its ‘shiny black head like a pinching shoe.’
My hand follows the flow
of lettering, slides over slate,
savours the rasping ruggedness
of the wall.
out of its very disproportion
breeds, miniscule as lichen, trust,
nurtured by this old silent place.
I go out into the low sunlight,
content to be dazzled, momentarily
knowing no stop, momentarily
seeing into that bright blindness,
plain to read as a child’s alphabet,
the hieroglyphs of beauty.
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