Lilt and Landscape: Wales in the Imagination Again

From the class memory box. Mine is the one with the tea and the bag label: Everyday.

It is the day after. I walked the dog as the sun came up, and saw neighborhood gardens I have passed a hundred times as a way of bringing the land in. It was cool and crisp this morning, with just a hint of sun and so much green. I had expected it to be hot, miserable, reliably unpleasant. We all made it through innumerable extra security checks and endless lines, through driving rain and stifling humidity to the not-Wales part of our lives. To the day after Wales.

Two days ago, we sat in our last seminar class, around the big table with the light streaming in slightly too brightly through the window behind Pam and revealing the class memory box. Before we left, we were asked to write down what we thought it would be like here, and now it was time to gather our experiences, memories, sensory encounters, collections–and tell the story new.

And I started the prompt that day:

Two and a half weeks ago, in stolen seconds, I would think of a grassy circle, high on a hill, with rocks or fallen logs where writers sat with heads down, pens flying, trance-like. The gray sky watched them, these students, lost in thought for hours at a time in a mist that would burn off with approaching afternoon. That was not so much imagined Wales as imagined workshop.

Writing in natural surroundings was paramount to me, because I had no landscape to write in–no cousin’s cottage to escape to, no eighteenth century retreat, no boathouse by the sea, as all these Welsh writers seem to just have, in their back pocket.

I think endlessly about translation and language. Before I came. During my stay. Tomorrow. I had not yet thought of making a place to do my own translations–a literal, physical place for it. I am studying two men who made physical places in which to translate the great Celtic stories, they were, in fact, a little Dylan Thomas-y about it, wandering around, talking and listening to people, gathering fragments. But they didn’t write out on the moors or in the mountains, they found another kind of space entirely to get the job done. In the houses of relatives and friends, in places that reminded them of where they had been and where they needed to go next.

The only place left for us to see on our trip in Wales is the boathouse where Dylan Thomas worked. I had barely thought of that stop when signing up for the course or even after arriving. Harlech Castle loomed large, the Slate Mines deserve their own entry and will certainly show in my writing at some point. New Quay (where Dylan did his data collection) and so many small towns along the way with old churches, winding roads, green bridges–these all were ripe for exploration, not some crummy old shed.

But I think that might just be the most important memory to collect, the practical sanctuary. We have already collected things for our memory boxes: shells, buttons, a drinks umbrella, wool, labels, rocks, Tym Morris’s cigarette. Translators can never quite hang on to anything, like you can hold onto a small round case from a memory box. You must endlessly, dangerously let it go, always listening, to make sure the words keep moving, stay alive.

En route to the boat house, I absent-mindedly search “build-your-own” sheds for my backyard. There would be nothing epic to look at out the window, wouldn’t it be akin to building a hot doghouse for myself that soon got overrun as a child’s fort or an abandoned monument to wishful efficiency? (Our house is filled with those already.)

We arrive at Dylan Thomas’s rented boat house, surrounded by water, mud flats stretching into infinity–high hills with that now ubiquitous small stand of trees at the top. It is a space of remarkable tranquility.

We walk into town where we are supposed to go to the pub that loomed so large in Thomas’s life, but–castle, you say? And I slip away, pay the entry fee, step into another tower.

Last night, when I still had been in Wales that morning, I showed Ryan and Zoe videos from the castles as Ryan clutched his new red dragon. I showed my mother-in-law the farm where another writer has such a magnificent retreat. I began to translate my experiences for them, beyond the still images I had been transmitting for two weeks. As the video rolled, I narrated more of my experience into existence–and they began planning for when they would go: I had inspired a new longing for the imagined/real place that would soon remain obstinately on the other side of the Atlantic.

On the day after, this morning, hearing the coffee klatch of birds here, they are so LOUD, praying that my dog does not lunge out or attack things, I notice something impossible. My view of the landscape here, my ear for the sound here, just in this first morning walk: I have brought Wales back with me.

I knew all along, when I packed for the trip, packing work folders, various connections back to projects that would continue while I was away, I knew I had to bring my American life with me in the suitcase (realities of a not-undergraduate-existence). I didn’t think it could work the other way around.

At the neighborhood Panera, staring out across the parking lot (that’s right, I really am back in America), I write this last blog, more aware than I ever have been of the sounds–not just of voices around me, but sounds of the thoughts in my head. I have always tried to build ideas into sculptural structures in my writing. And I thought about sound, of course. As an actor, you do a great deal of work to get your body alive to all of the possibilities of sound. But it’s not like with poets, who know where the emphasis is supposed to go, an actor has to stay open to an emphasis falling where it falls, and being a resonant enough sounding board to reverberate wherever it falls that night. Now, I hear my thoughts with the consonants underlined.

I am channeling the poetry of a distant land as a nuance, a lilt, that holds on. This is a new piece of my brain, specially developed for the occasion, that made it through customs, though I did not declare it (they ask you if you’ve come into contact with foreign animals and all I could think of was the endless navigation around sheep shit). I am seeing the sky as a traveling show, blowing in and out over mountains, continents and showing up here, overcast: gray like the smudge on a canvas just begun. I am planning for more encounters with the natural world that I had as a child in the mountains of Appalachia, that I need my children to have so that their landscapes will fuel their already epic imaginations.

I might build a shed. Everyone knows that’s not true. I might be overtly manipulative and insist that my husband build me a shed to make up for the whole bought-a-big-screen-tv-on-the-way-home-from-dropping-her-off-from-the-airport debacle.

Regardless, the Wales that must now be back in my imagination, only partially real when I’m not really walking there, that Wales–that now contains within its borders a mad sheepdog, a tiny room on the top floor of a dormitory, the rush of water under bridges, rocky beaches, a steep hill that local children slide down on their bottoms, a secret archive where the manuscripts are brought out to take a nap in front of you on what look like pillows you could buy at Target, tea breaks calmly erupting multiple times a day, the snorting, wheezing presence of a traveling sinus infection, voices of a local writers’ group at a pub–the Wales where issues of race, sexuality, class play in slightly different keys, where the gin has seaweed in it and the sheep have huge blue tags on them–that Wales is only part of the new reality.

I wrote a post about longing–the hiraeth piece–about my own struggles ever to connect anywhere or escape an internal horror story. I’ve always known what the disconnects were all about. I didn’t think I could install a space inside my head, a new space–not quite filter, not quite recording, but some of the neurotransmitters re-knit themselves, there, amidst all that wool, connecting me to a place I thought I would just be visiting. And so isn’t really the day after. It is the next day.

My friend Becky introduced me to this song, and helped me to work on my creative writing entry for the classes, putting up with my late night pleas for readership. And, in Wales, there were a lot of potatoes.
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