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Symbols of Plenty: Collected Poems

by Ruth Bidgood

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Symbols of Plenty is the tenth published collection of verse by Ruth Bidgood, one of today's leading Anglo-Welsh poets. It includes her celebratory Hymn to Sant Ffraid, or St Brigid as she is more widely known, which was originally commissioned for broadcast by BBC Radio Wales. Published here in its entirety for the first time, it brings into view a whole new dimension of her work. Weaving together the complex strands of myth and legend that surround this sixth century saint, it is an insightful and articulate statement of Celtic faith and belief. Five poetic sequences follow, chains of short poems focusing on themes that are central to Ruth Bidgood's writing - landscape, the myriad small events of everyday experience, the renewing power of memory in both private and public life.… (more)
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Of Saints, Angels and Wolves

Symbols of Plenty Ruth Bidgood Canterbury Press £9.99

With the recent publication of Ruth Bidgood’s New and Selected Poems from Seren, it might be felt that another selection of her work is superfluous. But this ‘selected longer poems’ has been put together to emphasise particular aspects of her poetry. Coming from an Anglican press with a short essay appended as an Afterword by Donald Allchin, it clearly aims to highlight her spiritual concerns. Though these would be apparent in any selection of her work, concentrating on longer poems puts the focus on narrative rather than purely lyrical presentations, and emphasises ideas as much as states of feeling.

The selection opens with the radio poem for three voices ‘Hymn to Sant Ffraid’ which Ruth Bidgood calls “an ode to a concocted Celtic saint”. Commissioned by the BBC in 1979 for a series of such poems, this work now appears in print in its entirety for the first time. Here the form requires an argument of sorts. How could the Welsh Ffraid be cognate with the Irish Brigid if the latter was an actual person living in Kildare? If the brief note about the concocted saint states the matter baldly, indicating that she was previously a “fertility goddess cum muse”, the poem rather more subtly, and at greater length, outlines this development of a saint/goddess associated with the earliest emergence of Spring in February, “freeing the river to flow into time of seed”. The three voices weave around each other to tell the story of “a saint of cloudy western hills, moorland rivers, of sea brume and secretive islands”; also of an association with the growing light after the darkness of December and January and of protection as symbolised by the hearth “the mothering fire/in the midst of the house”. The compact single sentence about the concocted saint already referred to concludes by saying that she “expressed a number of perennial human preoccupations”. Donald Alchin’s discussion of the poem picks up on this complexity, characterising the way Ruth Bidgood writes about Ffraid as wholly appropriate to the elusive, interwoven strands of myth and legend that have gathered around the goddess/saint over centuries.

If he has much to say about Ffraid, surprisingly Allchin says much less about Melangell, the subject of another poem sequence published here. The sequence is in two parts each, in fact, originally published separately but brought together - or concocted – for the anthology about Melangell The Hare That Hides Within, and adopted from there. It is surprising because, apart from the fact that Donald Allchin has written about Melangell elsewhere, there are many parallels between her and Ffraid. Both came from Ireland because they wanted to avoid an arranged marriage, both founded a nunnery and were said to be concerned with the protection of the vulnerable and both were integrated into the natural environment of Western Britain. True, Melangell’s cult was more localised, being centred on the remote valley of Pennant and chiefly known because she gave refuge to a hare and out-faced the hunter who was pursuing it. But the appearance here of poems to these separate figures certainly underlines the similarities both of the stories told about them and in the way in which they are conceived by this poet.

The remainder of the ‘longer poems’ appearing here are mostly short poems collected together in thematic groups, some originally appearing separately in different collections. The nine poems brought together in this way in ‘Encounters With Angels’ continue the exploration of the complexity of spiritual beings. These angels are by no means all of a kind. One ‘Atheist Angel’ declares that “God is an unnecessary concept” but insists the he must carry messages anyway because “…It’s my nature/ … That’s what an angel does”. The Angel of Death is seen as ordinary rather than terrifying, another sits down with a wolf and a saint and is “kin to the wolf in his wild/innocence”. Here we return to the concerns of Ffraid and Melangell, mediating between the wildness of animals and the human perception of things, equally alien, which live “in the eternal surprise of heaven”.

In the sequence ‘Singing to Wolves” each of the five poems is about a particular place along the border. The title is a comment ascribed to bored Llanthony monks who abandoned the wildness of the place, but, imaginatively, it is re-allocated to a young girl picking daisies, imagined by the poet to be one who might be inclined “to risk-encircled beauty” and to embrace her wild nature by “the sweet/unprofitable singing to wolves”. The sequence ‘Riding the Flood’ has nine poems about aspects of memory. One of these, ‘Inward Eye’, touches on a characteristic impulse in Ruth Bidgood’s poetry. Considering an apparently significant but un-attached fragment of something half-remembered, she responds

………………..Whatever sent me this
out of nothing can have it back for now
till its meaning comes with it. Let it go.

While at one level she is a poet whose work is informed by perceptions of the numinous, her primary aim, seen more clearly perhaps in these longer sequences, is to make meaning out of such perceptions. She says of Ffraid, “You were a poem waiting to be written”. Goddesses, saints, angels, even wolves are in that sense icons of our need for otherness. But they invite us, as with ‘Angel with Crwth’ here, not to be spectators to their music of the spheres, but creators of such music.

First published in PLANET magazine
  GregsBookCell | Dec 5, 2008 |
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Symbols of Plenty is the tenth published collection of verse by Ruth Bidgood, one of today's leading Anglo-Welsh poets. It includes her celebratory Hymn to Sant Ffraid, or St Brigid as she is more widely known, which was originally commissioned for broadcast by BBC Radio Wales. Published here in its entirety for the first time, it brings into view a whole new dimension of her work. Weaving together the complex strands of myth and legend that surround this sixth century saint, it is an insightful and articulate statement of Celtic faith and belief. Five poetic sequences follow, chains of short poems focusing on themes that are central to Ruth Bidgood's writing - landscape, the myriad small events of everyday experience, the renewing power of memory in both private and public life.

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