Dygwyd y Barnwr Sisamnes o flaen ei well
Am werthu cyfiawnder. Y ddedfryd: ei flingo.
Gwelais lun Gerard David ddegawdau’n ôl
Ym Mruges. Dychwelais ato dro ar ôl tro
I weld y manylion: sut gollyngwyd ei got
Ysgarlad mewn pentwr o dan y ford
Tra torrai’r gweithwyr y croen yn ofalus
Fel rhywrai’n agor amlen bwysig. Un yn datod
Botymau’i frest i ddangos crys isaf coch
Ei berson. Sut gosododd un ei gyllell rhwng ei ddannedd
Tra’n tynnu’n ofalus ar groen y goes,
Fel pe bai’n hosan ychydig rhy dynn
A chroen dyn yn rhywbeth i’w ddiosg. Dychwelais eto
Er mwyn craffu ar is-gnawd ysig y goes
Yn rhydd o rwydwaith y croen, yn noeth
Fel llygaid y dinasyddion yn syllu’n dawel
A sylwais ar y ci anwes yn cosi brath chwain
A’i bawen ôl yn gobeithio, efallai, am ddafn o waed
I’w lyfu. Syllais ar esgidiau lledr meddal y gwr ar y dde.
Mae Sisamnes yn griddfan drwy’i ddannedd, gewynnau
Ei wddf yn raffau o ing. Mae ei ddienyddwyr
Yn grefftwyr, yn gweithio’n araf er mwyn arbed rhwygo
Croen tenau’r cyn-farnwr. Fel tynnu brithyll o’i arfwisg.
Roedd yr aer fel dail poethion ar friw ei gorff.
Merthyrdod henaint. Nawr rwy’n gwylio fy nhad
Yn methu cerdded gan fod croen ei wadnau’n
Rhy denau – fel traed morforwyn! Rwy’n gwybod am eraill
O dan lach yr anffyddiwr, amser– wedi tynnu’i tafodau
Ac eto’n parhau i fyw a deall. Eraill wedi torri’u coesau,
Calonnau, ac yn dal i fyw neu’n wynebu fforest ddryslyd
Dementia ac yn cyfrif bendithion.
Pan fu farw Sisamnes, rhoddwyd ei etifedd
I eistedd yng nghadair y barnwr, ei groen
Yn lledr o dano. Bob tro deuai ei ddeiliaid o’i flaen
Am gyfiawnder, llosgai yng nghadair ei gyfrifoldeb.
Judge Sisamnes was brought in front of his betters
For selling justice. Sentence: to be skinned.
I saw the Gerard David’s decades ago
In Bruges. I returned to it time and again
To see the details: how his scarlet coat
Was dropped in a pile under the table
While the workers cut his skin with care
Like opening an envelope. One undid
His breast’s buttons to show the red undershirt
Of his person. How one put a knife
Between his teeth while pulling, carefully at the skin
Of his legs, like a sock a little too tight,
As if a man’s skin should be shed. I returned
Again to scrutinize the leg’s burning underskin
Free of the dermis’s net, as nude
As the citizen’s eyes, as they watched in silence.
And I noticed the lap dog scratching a fleabite
With its back leg, hoping, perhaps, for a drop of blood
To lick. I stared at the soft leather shoe of the man on the
Sisamnes is groaning through his teeth, neck sinews
A rigging of pain. His executioners
Are craftsmen, working slowly to prevent tearing
The former judge’s thin skin. Like pulling a trout
From its armour. The air
Was like stinging nettles on his body’s wound.
Old age is a martyrdom. Now I watch my father
Struggling to walk as the skin on his soles
Is too thin – like mermaids’ feet! I know of others
Under the lash of that infidel, time – their tongues
Cut out, yet they live, understand. Others have broken legs,
Or hearts and survive or they’re in the baffling forest
Of dementia and counting their blessings.
When Sisamnes died, his son was set
To sit in the judge’s chair, that skin
Beneath him, leather. Each time
His subjects came before him for justice,
He burned on the throne of his shame.
Poem in Welsh and translation into English both by Gwyneth Lewis
American Wales; European Wales: the sentiments of Welsh artists and intellectuals inclined strongly towards the one or the other during the twentieth century, with Welsh-language culture tending in the latter direction while the much more numerically powerful English-language culture, concentrated on the southern coalfield valleys, always favored the former. The recent referendum, of course, saw Wales as a whole decisively opting for an Anglo-American model of its future.
Let it be plainly stated: Gwyneth Lewis’s poem – even more taut and pungent to my taste in Welsh than it is in English – has very little to do with this issue. It is clearly (and very poignantly) about loss, ageing, mortality, and indeed the whole process of ‘inheritance’ (an issue of inescapable potency for any Welsh speaker of today).
But its co-incidence with the referendum inescapably endows it with a further resonance. The dereliction of the duty of public leadership; the sadistic turn in the self-righteously punitive response; the bearing by future generations of the resulting legacy of shame and guilt; such themes, subordinate though they may actually be in the text, may seem to loom temporarily large in the biased eyes of today’s readers
Whatever one’s ‘take’ on Brexit (and I view the decision as being as prospectively disastrous for Wales as it was crushingly dismaying), the sordid impact of the whole process on political and on public life has been undeniably degrading. Which is what this poem may (at least for the time being) reasonably be understood as saying, albeit sotto voce...*
* Apologies for this last-minute admission of a migrant word from a foreign country. Although I have embarked on an intensive course of de-Europeanization, the process of lexical cleansing is as yet clearly incomplete.
Gwyneth Lewis’s ‘Henaint/Old Age’ appears here for the first time, with the permission of the author.