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The Morrigan's Dark Ministers | by Giles Watson's poetry and prose
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The Morrigan's Dark Ministers

Illustrations of corvid birds from F.O. Morris's Book of British Birds (1861-1891): graphic collage by Giles Watson.

 

THE MORRIGAN'S DARK MINISTERS:

Poems by Giles Watson

 

Cú Chulainn and the Morrigán

 

It was a shriek to clot blood, or curdle milk;

The night air hung in clumps about our room.

 

I saw his buttock flash white in moonlight, the skins

That lined our bed strewn behind him.

 

With his britches I pursued him, grabbed

His sword, his gleaming battleaxe, his shield.

 

His chainmail weighed me down. His breath

Hung behind him like a stain in crystal night.

 

Her horse, blood-red in blenching moonshine,

Tramped on a single leg, the chariot pole

 

Pegged to his bleeding head, rammed

Through his body, out his sanguine, puckered arse,

 

His whinny made angels writhe. And She

Was red as him, her eyebrows gore-tinged, her cloak

 

Dipped in dregs of battle. Beside them, a man

Drove a cow by hazel-fork, with tonking bell, inanely grinning.

 

My husband, goosepimpled in the dark, his bollocks

Taut with cold, bellowed, “I am Cú Chulainn, cattle-master

 

And you, a cow-stealer. Submit, or feel my sword.”

And she of the reddened brow strode up to him,

 

Riled him with riddles, till he clutched the chariot wheel

And wept with rage. Her screech made mud clots

 

In the puddles where they stood.

I felt ridiculous,

Out at midnight, clutching britches, sword and axe

 

And a chainmail suit, for a man, alone and naked.

 

On his shoulder, a croaking crow.

 

Source material: The Ulster cycle records a number of encounters between Cú Chulainn and the battle goddess, sometimes known as the Morrigán, and sometimes as the Babdh. This poem records a typical meeting between the two, from the perspective of Cú Chulainn’s wife. See Miranda Green, Celtic Goddesses: Warriors, Virgins and Mothers, British Museum Press, 1995, pp. 44-45: “The hero was lying asleep one night when he heard a fearful shriek and rushed, naked, outside, his wife following with his weapons and his clothes. He encountered the battle-fury in the image of a red woman, with red eyebrows and a red cloak, riding in a chariot to which was attached a single red horse with one leg, the chariot pole passing through its body and secured to its forehead with a peg. Next to the vehicle walked a man holding a fork of hazel, driving a cow. Cú Chulainn challenged the appropriation of this animal, since he was guardian over all the cattle of Ulster. The couple responded in riddles… the apparition disappeared save for the fury herself who remained, in the form of a crow.

 

 

 

A Game of Gwyddbwyll

 

Armies of gold on a silver board

Reflect the fractured faces

Of a pair of kings.

 

Distorted raven-shadows

Wheel across them

Like windblown ash.

 

A king’s finger makes a move,

Its whorled print spreads

And fades on yellow metal.

 

Cries of men and raven-cronks,

Flurries of black talons

And wings. The impassive faces

 

Of two kings. Skulls crash

To ground, backbones fracture,

Spleens rupture, gashes bleed.

 

Eyes are picked out, sucking

Out of sockets. Birds tussle

For dead-man morsels, and craw.

 

A raven yawns; a bridge of blood

Spans his bristled gape. The king

Withdraws his hand.

 

“Your move.”

 

 

Source material: ‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’ from the Mabinogion, tells the story of a surreal battle between the forces of Arthur and Owain’s ravens. Arthur and Owain play Gwyddbwyll (a game similar to Chess), with golden pieces on a silver board, while the slaughter continues in the valley below. This poem describes the part of the battle in which the ravens have the upper hand, and destroy a large section of Arthur’s army by carrying the men into sky and smashing their bodies against the ground. The carnage of the battle is graphically depicted by Alan Lee in his illustrations to accompany Lady Charlotte Guest’s translation of the Mabinogion.

 

 

Tsauha

 

I am Tsauha,

Arthur returned

With bloodsword beak

And burning eyes;

I skywheel above Dover

To save fools from suicide.

 

I am Chauk Daw,

Blacker than a crow,

With bloodstained legs,

Becketed and blazoned

On Kentish banners

Above their burnished blades.

 

I am Killigrew,

The Cornish Jack,

Ousted from my homeland.

In pinewoods and

On inland fields,

I sneeze my own orisons.

 

I am Palores,

The darksome Celt,

Drubbed for my druid ways

By Romans and by Christians.

My black wings are

Flapping above you.

 

Source material: Francesca Greenoak, British Birds: their Folklore, Names and Literature, pp. 189-190. Tsauha, Chauk Daw, Killigrew, Cornish Jack and Palores are all common names for the Chough, which used to be specifically associated with Cornwall, but is now extinct there due to persecution. In King Lear, Edgar tells the blind and suicidal Gloucester that there are choughs wheeling high above the cliffs of Dover, suggesting that in Shakespeare’s day this was a distinctive feature of that area (it is not today). The bird is also associated with Thomas à Becket, and five of them appear upon the coat of arms of Canterbury. The association of the Chough with the returning Arthur suggests that in Celtic times, it was a much more vaunted bird than it is today. The lyricist’s own experience of a different species of Chough, acquired during a childhood in Australia, suggests that these birds adapt themselves superbly to introduced pine plantations; the English species has since been observed in comparable situations; once, mobbing an owl amongst scattered pines at Moor Copse near Reading.

 

 

Brandre

 

Claw the branches, darkened Craw

And fly to join your friends.

Wheel, a smudge in the fog,

Soot clad, past bare elms,

Sleeping oaks and dormant beeches.

Perch on the crown of the hawless thorn.

 

Fly to join your friends, black Rook,

Fly to meet your black lover

In a wood to bring the cold,

On a heath to bring down mist

In a town to bring a storm,

In a field to bring rain.

 

Fly to join your friends, black Brandre,

Fly to meet your black lover,

She and you, flocking in dimness

Roosting by the sun eclipsed.

Your black and ragged music

Fills the field.

 

Source material: A Durham tradition holds that if rooks feed in a village, a storm is close at hand. Craw is the Lancashire, and Brandre the Cornish, name for the rook.

 

 

The Oracle

 

The curse of the oracle I bear:

Baring uncomfortable truths

To those with too much power.

 

My heart, a small receptacle

For a kingly soul, beating old blood

About a body battered and maligned.

 

I spoke truths of children

Serpent tailed; Athene dropped her stone

In wrath, making Lycabettus,

 

And banished me from the Acropolis,

Turning black my bone-white

Feathers, beak and claw.

 

*

I shall draw the keeper’s wrath

Away from jays and slit-eyed foxes.

Of lead-shot cruelty I caw,

 

And hang dead, wired up like lightning

Zigzag, or a hooked and hanging

Question mark, zeroing to ground.

 

Cut me down gently, bury me,

Let my black fluid flow back

To Earth, who made me.

 

The curse of the oracle I bear:

Baring uncomfortable truths

To those with too much power.

 

Source material: In Greek mythology, the crow, personified as Cronus, was an oracular bird, and was said to house the soul of a sacred king after his sacrifice. The crow was cursed and banished by Athene after he reported to her that Herse, Pandrosos and Agraulos had plunged in terror from the Acropolis after uncovering a child with a serpent’s tail. She did this after dropping the stone which she had been carrying towards the Acropolis, thus forming the nearby Lycabettus Hill. See Robert Graves, The Greek Myths, 6, 7, 25, 50. The second half of the poem describes the plight of a particular crow, known to the author, who happened to fly within range of the gun of a bloodthirsty gamekeeper.

 

 

 

Jack Daw

 

The little Jack

Picks up sticks;

Plugs holes with them,

Inciting superstition.

 

With daws and tchacks,

The black beak clacks;

Toenails tapping

On the chimney pot,

 

With white eye

In his cocked skull.

The grey Jack

Blinks and bows.

 

The rogue bird gambles,

Drops sticks in soot;

Counts the chink

Of pennies stolen.

 

A wild card,

A black headed knave,

Fell down the chimney

Dealing death.

 

 

 

 

Source material: Jackdaws build their nests by dropping sticks into any available hole, until enough sticks snag against the sides for the nest to hold. Problems arise when a pair of jackdaws attempt this procedure using a chimney. In the north of England, the inevitable consequence – the collapse of the nest and the appearance of a disgruntled Jackdaw in the hearth – is said to be a portent of a death within the house. The name “Daw” has a high Germanic origin, and appears to be an imitation of one of the bird’s two characteristic calls. “Jack” is a relatively common bird-name prefix meaning “small” (for example, “Jack Snipe”, “Jack Doucker”), but is also commonly associated with knavery, which is a happy coincidence given the Jackdaw’s thieving habits. Male Jackdaws use a characteristic bowing motion during courtship. See Francesca Greenoak, British Birds: Their Folklore, Names and Literature, pp. 190-191. This poem is dedicated to Paul Ratcliffe, who personifies the name.

 

 

 

Devil Scritch

 

Garrulous, the Devil Scritch,

The woodland screamer,

Gathers acorns,

 

Spies higher ground

With pale eyes,

And scolds the gloom.

 

Digs holes to bury them,

Blue wings spread

On the bare earth.

 

Plants the forests

Of his forgetfulness,

 

His screeches distant

Like clatterings after fainting.

 

Source material: The Jay, Garrulus glandarius, is known in Somerset as the Devil Scritch, and has earned the Gaelic name of Screachag choille, or “screamer of the woods”. “Scold” is another apt Somerset name. Jays habitually store acorns and beech mast for the winter, burying them in the ground, usually higher up the slope from oak woodlands. Since forgotten acorns are liable to germinate, the Jay is thought to play a significant part in spreading oak forests, to the benefit of its progeny. See Francesca Greenoak, British Birds: Their Folklore, Names and Literature, p. 187. The last two lines offer, I hope, an appropriate simile for a bluejay’s cacophony heard from a distance, although I accept that it may be lost on anyone who has never fainted.

 

 

 

Bran

 

Grey Raven, my mother, flap

About the old oak, batter

His wizened trunk with wingbeats,

Fray your feathers on him.

 

Grey Raven, my mother, snap

At gulls, and scorn

Their loud garrulity.

Drive them away, Grey Raven.

 

Young Crow, my son, unsoil

My hoary wing with your

Broad bill, in our old oak

Upon the shore.

 

Young Crow, my son, remain,

And fly not through the fog

That shrouds the sea again.

Remain. Remain, Young Crow.

 

Little Bird, our taunter, sing,

And flaunt your flitting tail,

Who never gave a golden ring

Or rode an ocean gale.

 

Source material: An ancient Breton poem relates the story of Bran and his mother, who spend eternity as a crow and a raven in an old oak tree overlooking the sea. After the victorious Battle of Kerloan, Bran was nonetheless taken prisoner by the vanquished foe. While he was languishing under arrest, he sent a messenger to go and seek his mother across the sea, entrusting him with a golden ring to give to her. He told the messenger to sail back flying a white flag if his mother was coming to be with him, and a black flag if she had refused. Day after day, Bran asked the prison guard if he could see the messenger’s ship returning. At last, the treacherous guard said that he could indeed see a ship on the horizon, and when Bran asked him whether it was flying a black or a white flag, he answered, “A black.” Hearing this and thinking that his mother had abandoned him, Bran faced the wall and died. Later that day, the messenger’s ship arrived, and Bran’s mother came looking for him. She found him lying dead in the prison, lifted his corpse up in her arms, and transformed herself into a raven, and Bran into a living crow. See William Sharp (Ed.) Lyra Celtica, Edinburgh, 1932, pp. 60-63.

 

 

All poems copyright Giles Watson, 2004.

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Taken on November 28, 2008