M. Wynn Thomas on Gwyneth Lewis




            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.



Old Age


                        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.