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P O E T R Y I N P U B L I C P L A C E S
Fanfare I, Singleton Street, Swansea, 1987
The commission from Swansea City Council requested a text for the side of a new building at the corner of Plymouth Street and Singleton Street. It would incorporate reference to ‘sleep, dreams, memory, re-awakening and messengers (cherubs)’ in not more than twelve words – the then head of environmental design at the council, the artist Robin Campbell, having hatched a plan to liberate the cherubs from the dress circle balcony of the Grand Theatre opposite. With hammer and chisel in hand, six of these busy worker cherubs (or putti, to be correct) would swarm over the tower-like structure beneath which, initially, was a fish-and-chip shop.
The text evolved with nine words in English and three words in Welsh, ‘Y freuddwyd fyw’ (the living dream), pushing out (‘unleashed’) from behind them and painted in red – the colour of the dragon, of course, and of cherubs in early Christian iconography. The distinguished calligrapher Ieuan Rees designed and carved the lettering. It was objected by some that there was no such word as ‘forgetment’. The poet replied, ‘There is now.’
In a document prepared for the council, Nigel Jenkins explained some of his thinking: ‘Trumpets are associated with angels, of which cherubs represent the second order; messengers of the need to awake, they are a fairly universal symbol of summoning to resistance and struggle. I’m playing on the traditional idea in Welsh mythology that the nation’s great leaders – Arthur, Cadwaladr, Caswallon, Owain Lawgoch, Owain Glyndŵr – are slumbering with their retinue in a cave, waiting for the trump to sound that will summon them to the last great struggle for national liberation. In most of these stories, the caves are equipped with bells rather than trumpets, but I’ve favoured trumpets over bells, as bells have less of the urgency and creativity of trumpets. The cave is where, in a sense, the national memory sleeps, a place of forgetfulness, but a forgetfulness that can be banished by the trumpets’ rallying call. Most of the Welsh are not well informed about their history. ‘If you knew ...’, says John Tripp in one of his poems, suggesting that an engagement with the past (memory) would activate contemporary apathetic dozers and get them off their arses. So, for me, the lines have primarily a national significance. But I’d hope they also have other resonances: targeting complacency and cosy consumerism in the face of impending ecological catastrophe; reasserting the value of the non-rational, of imagination, in the face of a sometimes mechanistic rationalism; warning that most of us, as alienated human beings, have ‘forgotten’ too much of the old, sustaining wisdoms, practices, relations, and that to ‘dream’ of a future we need to return to the cave of our forgetfulness and pick them up again.’
Fanfare II, Singleton Street, Swansea, 1987
The poet notes: ‘In painting the word ‘green’ red, I wanted to urge a greater engagement of socialist politics with ecological politics, and vice versa, and although the stone isn’t exactly white, I also wanted to suggest the presence of the national colours. The panel develops from the ‘practical dream’ motif, to sing of an idealised future, the notion of song suggesting unity but also the lovely, and essential, differences between voices that produce harmony. I was thinking of Waldo Williams’s perception in his poem ‘Pa beth yw dyn?’ (What is man?): ‘Beth yw adnabod? Cael un gwraidd / Dan y canghennau.’ (What is recognition? Having one root / beneath the [many] branches.) I am also echoing here an extraordinary passage of poetry that bursts into a disturbed letter that Dr William Price of Llantrisant wrote to his solicitor. It was a legalistic sort of letter, arising from a mundane squabble over a piece of land, and proceeding in the kind of dull, efficient prose you’d use in a letter to a solicitor, when all of a sudden he exclaims: “I presume that wonders will never cease in the confusion of ideas till the day of judgement, whence everything will move in order in all directions to the sound of music.” I’m talking about ecstasy, I suppose – not the sort which we get brokenly and in debased forms from booze, drugs, money, royalty, the ‘stars’ – but artistic transcendence and the far reaches of the imagination. But I don’t want to pin down the piece’s meanings. Let it be open to all sorts of interpretations.’
Tower of the Ecliptic, The Promenade, Swansea, 1991
The six panels of poetry which appear on the walls of the astronomical observatory on the Swansea seafront arose from an order from Swansea City Council for ‘six short texts on the cosmos’. As Nigel Jenkins wrote in Real Swansea, ‘My cosmological knowledge was woefully inadequate, so I loaded myself up with books, made an office out of a ceramicist’s workshop in the artists’ studios above the Dylan Thomas Theatre, and set to self-educational work, casting my imagination far out towards the immensity of quasars and deep into the internal vastnesses of the atom. Life-altering stuff. But could I make poems out of this vital matter? Research eventually had to give way to creativity, and I chose to adapt for my ‘cosmic gnomes’ a three-liner known as the englyn penfyr, one of the oldest of the Welsh bardic forms. It seemed an appropriate model for a commission touching on both cosmological and human affairs – for the early Welsh nature gnomes, which combine the classification of natural phenomena with aphoristic wisdoms, represent perhaps the beginnings of science. My friend the poet Menna Elfyn translated the verses into Welsh, and the slate plaques were carved by the calligraphic artist Ieuan Rees of Rhydaman.’
Garden Festival Wales, Ebbw Vale, 1992
During the 1980s, at the behest of the Conservative government, five supposedly regenerative ‘national’ garden festivals were held in areas of Britain hit by the decline of heavy industry. Nigel Jenkins collaborated with the artist David Pearl on two poetry artworks, which were among several commissioned by the Ebbw Vale festival.
Vanished tricks of dust and light
tapping like snowflakes
at the ’lids of the living
These words were ‘written’ in neon and placed around the mouth of an industrial crusher cone which had been found on site. Nigel Jenkins wrote of the piece, in Alchemy, the catalogue of the public arts programme at Garden Festival Wales: ‘Eyes have lids. So do coffins. What’s left of the plants and creatures that preceded us on this, the only inhabited planet of which we have knowledge? What is left of an apple, a man, a man’s labour? Is there no more, ultimately, to the ‘collective memory’ than carboniferous limestone, oil? We are eaters of light – luxivores – who forge from the matter of long-dead stars, and the energy of a living star, the cells that invite us to linger awhile, as those cells die, repeat, die, repeat ... Though we lose in a lifetime ten more or less material selves, our singularities – facial features, guiding loves, precise guilt – persist, transmuting subtly, and leap across each body’s leaving. Each of us, we understand, is unrepeatable, unique in all the universe ... then: smoke, ash, when? blue sky, blue sky, who? And yet: if something as small as one swish of a butterfly’s wing is capable of initiating a hurricane, what kind of storm might not be kicked up by something as mighty as a memory?’ [ image © David Pearl ]
Any fish can fly
in the belly of a gull
Mild steel and clear float glass were the materials for this piece. Nigel Jenkins wrote of it in the catalogue, ‘Make of this, Cymry, what you will ...’
Swansea City Centre Poetry Scheme
In 1992, the Swansea City Council invited a team of three poets (Nigel Jenkins, David Hughes and Menna Elfyn) and two artists from the planning department (Robin Campbell and Brenda Oakes) to produce poems celebrating ‘the magic of place’, along with sculptures and street furniture to present them. The idea was to give the newly pedestrianised eastern end of Oxford Street, with its post-war, clone-town stores, a stronger local identity. To sing and celebrate Swansea, in a range of equally valid voices, was the aim. One of David Hughes’s micropoems – ‘Ambition is critical’ – found its way to paving outside High Street station. The first in Oxford Street itself was another of David’s – ‘Boldness before princes’ – angled to address the castle, ancient seat of alien power. At the other end of the precinct were Menna’s ‘Mae saint a satan yn symud ar y sement’ (Both saint and satan are moving on this cement) and, nearby, some wooden benches carved with her words. Midway between them, raying out from a lamppost, was Nigel’s ‘Swansea Toast’:
To every burgess a burgage, to every Jack a Jackette,
Jacs bach, good ground from which to soar.
To all Jacks their acres beyond the wood,
The sun’s green song and a fishy rain.
To each his nine, her ten holes, a care
For the sea, and sewin muscling their moons upstream.
To all Jacks their seven hills, peace in their homes,
South westerly winds and salubrious passage.
At around the time the poems were becoming part of the streetscape – and when, simultaneously, Swansea was bidding to host the UK Year of Literature and Writing 1995 – Swansea appeared, superficially, to be a confident, cultured city. Thanks largely to changes at the top, and a lurch rightward among the elected members, that confidence evaporated and Swansea lost its nerve. A sculptural feature the group had planned was a ‘stage set’ fragment of a Roman arch framing the words, in Swansea dialect, ‘Seezer avenaclew wotsgowin on’ (Caesar hasn’t a clue what’s going on).
The plan got no further than the maquette stage, after a mole in the engineering department leaked a crude sketch of the arch to the Swansea Herald, an advertising freesheet.
It was the Herald that now led a general press attack on the poetry project. The use of Swansea dialect, it averred, was ‘in extremely bad taste’ and amounted to ‘taking the mickey out of the local patois’. Out came the municipal hacksaws and screwdrivers, therefore, and away went every word in the language spoken by tens of thousands of Swansea people. A bilingual fingerpost near the church – ‘Cofiwch yfory / Remember tomorrow’ – was irrational, declared the Post on a Saturday. By Monday morning, therefore, the offending micro-poem had been removed. Whatever the local press or individual ‘poetry fans’ at the Guildhall took exception to, the local authority obediently removed, unable or unwilling to support the art works it had commissioned. Only a fraction of what had been planned for Oxford Street, and associated streets, was installed; by 2008, after a run of sixteen years, the remainder had been removed in a major Oxford Street refurbishment programme.
Christina Street, Swansea
A macaronic text (in stainless steel; 1997) by Nigel Jenkins – in English and Welsh – for the exterior walls of a city-centre housing association building. The original wording was ‘Came for a day – setlo am oes’ (Stayed a lifetime), but this was amended prior to installation to ‘Came for a day – setlo ar fwy’n fodlon’ (stayed to live contentedly).
The Princess of Wales Hospital, Bridgend, 1995
This was a collaboration with the artist David Pearl to compose a number of short poems on the theme of the human body, to be inscribed in glass slabs attached to the wall in the foyer of the hospital. The poems took the form of about sixteen questions, bereft for the most part of rational answers, some of which were translated into Welsh by Menna Elfyn. The full sequence arising from this commission, comprising a total of forty-seven poems, was subsequently published in Hotel Gwales (2006).
The Esplanade Sundial, Porthcawl, 2001
A collaboration with blacksmith-artist Andrew Rowe and the Welsh-language poet Emyr Lewis, involving the composition of poems inscribed on a circle of chairs (mild steel and stainless steel) surrounding Rowe’s ‘ice-cream cone’ sundial.
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CONTENT : © 2012 NIGEL JENKINS | DESIGN : © 2012 NEILBEER.COM