An encounter with an otter in a mid-Wales bookshop led me to the banks of the River Dee in north Wales to explore the magic and history of the celebrated ‘wizard stream’ of Milton and ‘silver clere’ waters of Spenser.
The otter in question caught my eye when on holiday in Hay-on-Wye last year and proved to be the inspiration for a poem I entered into the Learner’s Eisteddfod held at Theatr Twm o’r Nant in Denbigh just before lockdown. That otter is the subject of Jackie Morris’ evocative ‘The Names of the Otter’’, it’s spirit enchanted from the water by a magical incantation of river-names: as a student of the language, I was especially intrigued by its Welsh name, dwrgi or water dog.
Attracted by the subject matter of the poetry category, Môr a Mynydd (Sea and Mountain), I chose to write about the journey of the River Dee from its source on the dark, eastern slopes of Dduallt in Snowdonia, following its course as it gains speed, rolling and spilling into valleys, sometimes meandering and mazy, sometimes rushing and impatient, but moving forwards always through landscape and time, before reaching the wide and shallow basin of the estuary and finally, the open sea.
This river has been special to me since I first attended Golftyn Infants School in Connah’s Quay, an old Victorian building standing on its banks, sadly no longer there, where every spring we would gather in the playground to watch house martins making their nests of river mud in the eaves.
As I sat down to begin writing, the image of the otter was instantly bright in my mind; slipped from the poster she was now padding along the moonlit banks of the river. Listening intently at the water’s edge, she slides suddenly and deftly into its silky darkness to join an invisible, murderous chase, twisting, turning, writhing, outwitting, bursting back through the water in a explosion of silver, a fish in her grip and a cruel glint in her eye.
And so this is how the otter found her way into my poem, my first in Welsh, which I entered into the competition with the encouragement of my wonderful and ever-patient tutor, Tesni Wyn. The poem, I’m pleased to report, won first prize! I have included the English translation below, to the best of my ability, but as they say, there’s always something lost… Aerfen is the water deity, or goddess, of the river, and Llyn Crych y Waun translates as ‘shivering moor lake’.
TAITH AFON DYFRDWY
Sibryda llais Aerfen yn ddistaw bach
drwy greigiau’r Dduallt, ar draws
Llyn Crych y Waun.
O’r uchder tywyll hyn i lawr i olau’r dyffryn
rhed yr afon ddisglair, fel aur o dan yr haul,
arian dan y lleuad.
A lle nofia’r brithyll brith a’r helfeydd dwrgi
dan yr hen bontydd gerrig,
yma mae’r afon hudolus nawr yn troelli – dan ei bwâu.
Ymlaen ac ymlaen y rhêd
drwy’r caeau, pentrefi a threfi
fel edau arian sy’n ein cysylltu ni – ein gorffennol i’n dyfodol.
Ac yna, cyrhaedda’r Ddyfrdwy’r môr,
lle mae ewyn y don yn gloywi tu hwnt i’r aber fawr
a gwylanod gwyn yn hwylio’r gwynt uwchben y tonnau gwyllt,
i grwydro moroedd y byd i gyd, a galw’r eogiaid adra.
JOURNEY OF THE RIVER DEE
Aerfen’s voice whispers softly
through the rocks of Dduallt
across Llyn Crych y Waun.
From these dark heights
the river runs
to the light of the valley below,
shining like gold beneath the sun,
mercury beneath the moon,
and where the otter hunts
and speckled trout swim
beneath the old stone bridges
the enchanted river swirls
and eddies through arches.
On and ever on she runs,
through village, field and town,
a silver thread connecting us,
our past with times to come,
until finally, she reaches the sea,
where the spray bursts in silver sparks beyond the estuary
and seagulls sail the wild, wild, wind above the waves and spume,
to search the waters of the world, and call the salmon home.