Review: The Long Field is a rich meditation on the meaning of hiraeth and memory
‘This book is about the forces that have created long fields in Wales and in me, and beyond us both,’ says Petro about this rich mixture of memoir, travelogue and meditation on the meaning of hiraeth and memory. In part The Long Field is an account of how she was first enraptured by the country in the 1980s – despite the incessant rain, the televised darts matches, having more than one wallpaper print in a single room and the frozen pub food – and remains in its benign, embracing thrall. Or what her parents call ‘Pam’s Welsh thing.’
A long field, she posits, is the distance that ‘separates you from what you love on the other side’ of it. In her case that spans from where she lived as a child in Verona, New Jersey to where she came more vividly alive in Wales. Here she ‘learned how to pull a pint, never to leave a farm gate open, never to pour loose tea leaves into rural plumbing.
The days became like charged electrons jumping between atoms of learning, lived experience, and creative innovation.’ Being in the rain and wet so often made her hair curl for the first time but the inner changes wrought by the country were bigger, deeper, profounder. She found herself in agreement with the landscape, its lucidity cutting like a scalpel through mental images of other places she had lived. She knew she had found her cynefin, her habitat, encountering places as strikingly familiar to her as her own memories.
Her early days as a student in Lampeter weren’t entirely bewitching. The baths in ice cold iron tubs were a little too bracing and she had to share rooms with the college rugby team. But soon she was applying make-up to props and flankers before a match, as they found a little eyeliner and touch of lipstick unnerved other teams, although Petro also suspected they enjoyed the look.
The book is in part a disquisition on hiraeth, and especially how Petro sees a longing for something lost carrying a creative charge, as the ‘presence of absence meets the powers of imagination.’ In this she is at odds with friends such as the poet and activist Menna Elfyn who sees giving in to hiraeth as a ‘way of voluntarily imprisoning yourself in some vague, idealised past’ and critics such as M.Wynn Thomas who see it supporting a ‘dangerous tendency to believe that things were better’ then, as if the ‘Welsh had come into being through loss.’
But Petro belives she brings her American optimism to the word and concept and transmutes it, helping to take ‘a short step from longing to imagining.’ It’s also about queer hiraeth as the book charts her own life, belonging to sexual minority and trying to opt into a lingustic one. As she cautions: Once these minorities have been deemed ‘wrong’ or ‘immoral’ or simply ‘other’ – whatever backhanded slap you strike them with – the people born to them are inevitably consigned to one kind of hiraeth or another.
Petro also muses on biological hiraeth, the low lying sense of absence of the children she and her partner Marguerite never had. But if there’s an abundance of love present in the pages of A Long Field – for driving a car ‘into the choppy tide of Welsh curves,’ for ‘the fine mists cast like fishnets on the breeze’ and the ‘earthshock’ of the landscape – it’s most strikingly present in the writing about Marguerite, whose name means ‘daisy’ and so is Petro’s Blodeuwedd, her woman made of flowers, her miracle.
She can make Pamela ‘so happy my inner organs wanted to jump out of my skin.’ Their love describes the spectrum between rapture and quiet companionship, or, as Petro puts is ‘that’s what you do for those you love. You let them have their joy.’ In this life-affirming book the complexities and layerings of life are always seen, or refracted, through an American lens, from the roadrunner-like pheasants through the lichen ‘the size of sand dollars’ to the ‘Mohawk haircuts’ of the bald Welsh hills as Petro vacillates between the two countries, using one to assess the other.
The Long Field also details Petro’s visits to emotionally-resonant places such as Tryweryn, Aberfan, Big Pit and the top of Snowdon as well as revisiting Lampeter year-on- year to host a summer school for American students. She particularly loves Carn Ingli and the ancient woodlands, the arthritic oaks of Tŷ Canol Wood that green the valley below the megaliths.
Longing is present in many writers whose work Petro catalogues and examines in her own book, such as the hymn writer Ann Griffiths, her friend Jan Morris, the dipsomane poet Dylan Thomas, the great songsmith of untruth, Iolo Morganwg and garrulous George Borrow. It’s also present in a long lexicon of words in other languages, such as saudade in Portuguese, the nearest cognate to hiraeth. It’s closely allied also to hüzün in Turkish, which, according to the novelist Orhan Pamuk rises out of the pain the Turks feel for everything that has been lost and Petro also ticker-tapes other examples from Catalan, Romanian, Finnish and many more.
You’ll have seen by now how rich are the ingredients in Petro’s cawl of memories, cultural readings and intuitions. There is the near-fatal train wreck in America and the strange, inexplicable visitation outside her mother’s nursing home in Connecticut, when a seeming stranger urged her to go looking for herself, as if time and space had somehow comingled outside the Masonicare facility.
There’s the time she was denied entry into the UK because she inadvertently said she was going to be teaching on a course in Wales and another when she tried her hand at breaking and entering. And there’s the time when her writing career imploded when the internet supplanted the many newspapers and magazines for which she used to write. This book is in part the answer to that particular setback.
It is arranged as palimpsests of memory, things settled down and still settling. Or, as Petro says of her multiple visits to Pentre Ifan, one visit ‘hitches to the next in my memory and it seems like I don’t age in between. Different seasons, skies, haircuts, lovers – they press hard against each other in the Pentre Ifan file, seep together, merge. My own sedimentary layers. My bedrock.’
That bedrock is the geological undertow of The Long Field. Do please walk its undulating green acres with Petro, feel the springiness underfoot, enjoy the thrill of seeing a familiar country rendered anew.
The Long Field is published by Little Toller and you can buy a copy here.
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