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Dresse me my harpe

The speaker in Anna Cowan’s poem herself undertakes a myth-making activity in playing her harp. “It is time”, she declares, as she unshackles the spirit of her surroundings, coaxing all still things into motion. She introduces her poem: “This is a poem of the mysteries of the harp. My instrument transports me to an ancient memory of its Celtic heritage which surrounds the music and the imagination when I play. These are some tales which present themselves to me through the harp, bordering reality and the old magic, like my beloved Shropshire bridges England and Wales. I usually accompany this poem with my harp, so consider turning on some Welsh trad harp to read to! Let us begin with a Shropshire proverb.

I am of Shropshire, my shins be sharpe. 

Lay wood to the fyre and dresse me my harpe 

It is time. 

When I play, I pull the faeries from the woodwork 

I enchant the spirits from the ceiling beams, 

old oak, auld oak,

struts darkened in the farmhouse 

since cows crowded the kitchen wall. 

Old fireplace, do you remember the rival warmth? 

Red brick hearts ticking in the heat 

and the gentle must, rising

from broad threadbare backs. 

Wet tongue swipes idly over the snubbed nose. 

A commotion in the barn – 

sudden shifting, sudden strewn hay, 

A revelation of glassy eyes, 

lids flicked wide in surprise. 

It was only a sudden pigeon. 

The herd tension subsides – 

a maverick’s swaying tail, 

nonchalant, switch switch 

All this past  

I conjure on the strings. 

When I play, the fey tremble behind the oak leaves, 

hawthorn, ash, deadly yew, 

caught drunk on my twined notes. 

Petal-strewn, tiny limbs,  

they weevil in the grass. 

Cold pinching fingers husk the barley, 

shock the great cows’ udders  

into pinhead streams of milk, 

slice the peapods with feline nails,

tearing the leathery skins apart. 

Peas rupture into the breeze. 

And far away little girl, 

in the sunken dell, 

banked by briars, 

canopied with yew, 

when the moonstone mushrooms bubble up in a ring 

you’ll run 

if you know what’s good for you. 

These fey wiles  

I conjure on my biney strings. 

And the screaming druid in the sacrificial grove 

(of elated yews, 

I’ve seen it myself) 

The welsh strings thrum to his hoarse shout 

for blood, and life, 

of fear, and release. 

On the spine hard spider silk, 

the sacrificial lamb gut,


from headpiece to soundboard, 

strung from branch to branch. 

I play for O’Carolan, 

Sweetening the Solstice night. 

My tripping fingers 

sooth the old beams, 

the fireplace, 

the wall, lonely for its cows, 

all superstitious still. 

I resurrect the jigs,  

reels, ballads of the fireside.

Even the comatose fey 

Hide with me on that night. 

Burrow into my music, 

as warm and heavy as bread. 

Auld dangers are abroad that night; 

The giant unseated from Caer Gwrygon, 

the drowned, singing witch of the Mere, 

the great, marsh-soaked bear, 

And Old Shuck, slinking down ditches. 

All this I conjure, 

All this I know. 

My harp sings of wonders 

lost, found and unknown. 

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