The Kemp Owaine Sequence

 

Kemp Owaine is a mythical warrior who appears in some Saxon stories, often associated with magic. The name itself is fascinating because “Kemp” is Saxon and is from the same origin as German kampfen, to fight:  it means a warrior. But “Owaine” is Celtic Owen; so this mythical character is, as it were, half Saxon and half Celt and probably represents a Celtic mythical hero taken up by Saxon culture.

The first stanza here is closely based on a real surviving fragment where Kemp Owaine meets a monster who turns into a beautiful woman. The rest take the myth into modern times.

 

THE KEMP OWAIN SEQUENCE

 

METAMORPHOSIS

 

Seeking a great prize not identified

The lost prince pads wet-footed from the sea

Having heard rumours of a weird thing

A ravenous monster with a hint of speech

An evil dragon crying for a mate:

Circling of gulls shows him the way to climb

They take the scraps of bloodied flesh around

The female devil growing from the tree.

The warrior has a sword well-blessed and forged

A gap in sliding clouds can now unleash

Light from the imprisoned sun to make the sword

Glint like a fire in Prince Owain’s hand.

A sign of Gods to trust the sword and strike

But though a warrior he does not strike

But stands before the long-haired nightmare thing

And hears it speak: come here, kiss me and win

The prize you cannot even know exists.

He kisses her through tangling hair and stink

Of death or sickness and the sun goes in

As if a shadow is falling. As he stares,

“Kiss me again,” she says. He is still human,

His hands not wizened or hairy, even the scar

From that old fight still itches on his chin,

But for the thing he kissed, cavernous eyes

Have filled and narrowed and the maddening breath

Smells not of death but only dangerous night.

He kisses her. The withered breasts grow young

The claws recede. “Again,” she beckons him,

But the dull day has turned to starless night.

He hesitates, gropes for his darkened sword,

Then throws it down and kisses her again.

She feels soft, the smell is sweet. “Turn round,

Pick up your sword and throw it in the sea.”

He turns and throws the holy sword away

Night becomes day, the lady’s live and lithe

Twining her hair with his beneath blue skies.

 

 

SALMON

 

I will be good to you for half the year

For half the year I’ll need you: we will love

For half the year, but for the rest I’m gone

You cannot send a message or a gift

I will not speak, I’ll have forgotten you

Till I return in spring.

 

I range the seas and have no sense of land

I jump the rapids with a single aim

If I escape the bears and fishermen

I will remember land and feet and thought

And come to you again.

 

 

CANDIDATE

 

So Owen Kemp arrived at the Reception

Where they conducted him to a conference room

Milling with others aiming to achieve

The same great prize. Then from the highest place

A woman’s voice spoke soft and rich and clear:

“Welcome. We’re glad you could attend today.

We have devised a battery of tests,

We hope you’ll find them fun as well as right.

So Owen answered all the riddles set

Like whether he felt nervous in a crowd,

He linked the dots to make a cockatrice

Devised a way to escape the universe

After a coffee break, beat all the rest

At memory games and four-dimensional chess

He tricked the lion from its hoped-for kills

And then the wise ones called him in alone:

“Thankyou, but we were really looking for

A team-player with good networking skills.”

 

DIVISION

 

The man talks on his mobile phone

(A rodent hanging from his face)

He has a message to receive

An awkward meeting’s going well

But needs his word to clinch the deal

A momentary annoying thing

Speaks of the hidden and unreal

But what concern is salmon or seal?

 

The sea is calm, more like a lake,

And never broken by a dive

Of wandering man, has never held

A salmon that had breathed and run

All time’s cut up in hours and dates

The sea and land each know their place

Sandcastles are the only gates

The long-haired woman wails and waits.

 

 

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7 Comments

  1. Simon this is so very good…..the way you’ve integrated the old and the new…..especially the candidate and all his device going to waste in a world that doesn’t value what it once did…..I’m very excited about this poem….

    Reply
  2. Thanks very much, Neel! I almost didn’t include it: this is a selection of a selection of my poems and I’m going through the archive chronologically. But having posted it I was pretty much convinced I’d done right to post it and that, though as I said, I often struggle to end the poem well, the last line struck gold.

    By the way, I failed to explain that Celtic legend is full of beings which are half-man, half-beast, men who father children and return to the sea as seals and so on. I was drawing on that for the second and final parts. In the Kemp Owaine passage I based the first part on, the witch (or whatever she is) has her long hair twisted around a tree, and each time Kemp Owaine kisses her, the hair becomes shorter and less twisted around the tree.

    Reply
  3. Neelima

     /  November 23, 2011

    That is very interesting….look forward to reading more of this sequence…..it could make for an entire collection! I really hope you publish these in book form soon:)

    Reply
    • Thanks, Neelima! This is the end of that particular sequence, but not of some of the themes. As for publication, that is my aim: it’s very difficult getting poetry published in the UK (is it easier in India?) but good viewing figures on my poetry blog should help, plus appearing in e-publications and hard copy magazines, and I have ideas about mixing poetry and artwork – much easier than when Blake did it, but I’d need an artist partner. I checked recently how far I’d gone through my word file of my better poems selecting for this blog and the answer is 2/5 of the way in two months, so allowing for writing new ones, I should be up to date in three-and-a-half to four months.

      I wouldn’t rule out self-publishing, but it would have to be a good job and I would gain no satisfaction from saying, “This is my book. A hundred and ten people all told have bought it”!

      Reply
  4. I’m pondering the poetry situation in India as well….I thought UK was the heartland of potential poets…so many opportunities and competitions….have you tried entering those?

    Reply
  5. I’ve looked at two competitions. For one, there was a cash prize, but you only had to do the arithmetic to see that the organisers were on to a good thing, taking far more in entry fees than they would pay out, and the poems which had won in previous years didn’t especially impress me. Nonetheless, I entered, wasn’t placed and considered it money wasted. For the other, there was no cash prize, just the cachet of being the prizewinner and getting your poem published, but as there was an entry fee and I was already getting my poems published in that magazine, it didn’t seem a good deal to me. What I can quote is being published in several UK poetry magazines, having quite good traffic on my blog and having poems included in international online poetry sites. I continue to be interested in the idea of mixing poetry with other things, unlike in the conventional poetry book – poems with relevant artwork and/or with short bits of prose.

    When I started writing poems again after “Spirit Mountain” I deliberately avoided groups so I could be sure I’d developed my distinctive voice before anyone tried to give me another. I have my voice now, but I haven’t found any groups in my area, Essex and Suffolk. However, I’m rapidly buidling up links with other writers online. I take any opportunity to spread the word.for example a Poetry Evening at the local church.

    Reply
  6. As far as I know in India, there are a few poetry competitions- maybe one or two a year. There is a much bigger market for fiction and non-fiction. Another thing I noticed is that many poetry magazines do not want poetry that has been posted on blogs….so again there is a conflict of interest with poets who blog and create an audience and also want to be published.

    Integrating poetry with other things is the only way for the medium to survive, but the question is how will the poet survive?

    Reply

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