BLOG Ellen Bell

NWR Issue 113

The Map and the Clock

Sitting in Aberystwyth’s Arts Centre’s Theatre Bar Café, way too early for the theatre doors to open, I think about who goes to poetry recitals. That woman in the pale-grey tweed coat and turquoise scarf carrying a Matalan carrier bag? Or the tousled-haired gentleman shaking out his umbrella? Or that giant of a man in a long gabardine mac with headphones in his ears? Or the bearded bloke in a Crombie, his trouser pockets bulging? Or the three middle-aged ladies, one zipped-up tight in a shell-pink anorak, nursing handbags?

Are they only for poets?

The theatre doors open and all of them follow me in, bar the woman, now sans coat and Matalan bag, who scurries into the studio space.

We’re not terribly full, one of the Front of House staff is saying to two women, you can sit there if you like.

The stage is stark. Just a screen with a projection of the book’s cover, a lectern, two chairs and two tables. (On one of these tables is a white wig perched on a hairdresser’s polystyrene styling head.)

With its usual fussing over seat numbers, disrobing of coats, scarves and bags, the audience begins to build. A cacophony of over-loud, jaunty, mediaeval-style instrumentals (one appearing to be a version of Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree) being piped through the tannoy accompanies this bustling. When the lights go down and two men in black walk on to the stage, the silence is instantaneous.

This is where it begins to get better, says the poet Damian Gorman taking his place at the lectern, his County Down accent filling the auditorium. We’re here to celebrate this lovely book, The Map and the Clock, he continues. A bar of gold, he says, and not just for the heft of it. He announces the cast, the book’s co-editors – Gillian Clarke, former National Poet of Wales and Carol Ann Duffy, Poet Laureate – and Ifor ap Glyn, our new National Poet, as well as Imtiaz Dharker, Pakistani-born poet and winner of the Queen’s Medal for Poetry. As my son would say, none too shabby a line-up, says Gorman.

Sweeping his left hand towards the man who accompanied him on stage, Gorman introduces him as John. John (apparently surname-less), a mountain of a man with a tiny head and neat, small feet shod in gleaming patent leather shoes, is a Scottish musician. A player of curious woodwind instruments (this is a Crumhorn, this is a Goat horn), John, Gorman explains, is to be our warm-up act between poets. The choice of intermission music is now evident. Gorman exits while John heralds Gillian Clarke’s entrance with a trumpet.

We decided that Welsh, Irish, Scots-Gaelic should all be honoured, says Clarke. The map is that of Britain and Ireland and the clock is our going back to the sixth century, she explains before proceeding to read her selection. For all her physical frailty (she came on using crutches) her voice, as she reads poems by Dafydd ap Gwilym, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Robert Williams Parry, Alun Lewis and Lynette Roberts, is as dulcet as ever.

In contrast, Ifor ap Glyn’s booming style and delivery of John Agard’s poem Mr Oxford Don Guyanese-style, somewhat confirms his day-job as a TV presenter. I thought he read well, says a woman behind me during the interval. He’s a Londoner, you see, her friend replies, and he’s got so much on his plate.

Up to now a politely reverent audience, Imtiaz Dharker’s reading of her poem I Swear has us tittering uncertainly. Arse over tit, she exclaims delightedly, arse over tit.

Carol Ann Duffy, razor-edged with anger (at Donald Trump mostly), seduces with her flat nasal voice. Her recital of her poem The Counties has us rapt, uttering the last line in unison.

The cast take a curtain call. Even John, the wig now explained by his wearing it for a pre-interval rendition of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik played consecutively on two recorders (don’t do this at home, folks, he advises us) is warmly applauded.

The woman next to me, who has whispered along, word-for-word, to most of the poems, is a scientist.

Just for poets? I think not. I hope not.

Ellen Bell is an artist and writer living in mid Wales.


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