On Weird and Wonderful Wales / Writing Ghosts: Tracey Rhys

Tracey Rhys discusses her poem ‘Telling Secrets to the Walls’, published in Issue Ten of The Lonely Crowd. The accompanying sketches are by the artist Pete Fowler.

Last year, I was lucky enough to be chosen to participate in the Weird and Wonderful Wales project, a joint creative venture between Literature Wales, Cadw and the illustrator Pete Fowler. Taking place at six CADW locations throughout Wales, the project gave writers the opportunity to engage with local people, creating new stories around local myths while Pete worked on a series of images inspired by the sessions.

I can’t say enough about the benefits of collaboration for the insular poet. My first pamphlet, a collection exploring the early days of my son’s diagnosis of autism, was exhausting to write: a labour of love, frustration, sorrow, acceptance and something else, more magical entirely. Of course, when the poems were written, I found that I wasn’t finished at all. Like summoning a spirit with a Ouija board, it’s hard to lay to rest that which you’ve prodded to life. I used to think that expressing a trauma would be a great way of exorcising it, but biographical writing raises ghosts that stay long past the deadline. They go on holiday with you, send you postcards and then drive home with you again. For sanity’s sake, you feel the need to step out into the world, and here is where collaboration can be a lifesaver.

Over the years, I’ve dipped my toes in collaboration with theatre, writing poetry as monologue for a number of plays. It’s a medium for poetry that is underused but far-reaching, and when it works, it really does do some startling things. It can cause a visible shift in the atmosphere, as if some truth is being attempted, or the workings of minds are being unwound. It might be the rhythm, some primal invocation of beat.

Listening to the storyteller David Ambrose retelling Caerphilly myths on a wet, windswept night by the light of the castle fire, did a great favour for me. It gave me an introduction to a whole host of new ghosts. In a place of walls and passages, with the elements all around, it’s easy to find your voice again, to transpose feelings to new ground and set the psyche on a fresh scent. That mix of the theatrical and the local inspired me, along with a session the next day, where a fellow writer shared with me a story familiar to many. A woman who felt she was all mother and only half-begun, her children off her hands but her own life still in waiting; the feeling that perhaps the real her might be outside herself and could be found.

For me, this character was destined to become part of the brickwork, an Alice in Wonderland chasing her shadow. But ‘Telling Secrets to the Walls’ has another Alice. The myth of Caerphilly’s Green Lady is based on the wife of Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, the then lord of the castle. The French niece of Henry II, Alice of Angeloume began a love affair with Gruffydd the Fair, Prince of Brithdir, during her husband’s many warring absences.

Gruffydd made the mistake of confessing their relationship to a monk, who sent word to Gilbert. Incensed, he sent Alice back to France in disgrace. Gruffydd, hearing the news, set out on a chase to kill the monk. He caught him nearby at Ystrad Mynach (Monk’s Vale), which takes its name from the tale, and hung him from a tree, only to be hung himself by Gilbert’s men shortly after.

The story goes that Alice, on receiving the news from Gilbert, collapsed in grief and died. Her ghost, wearing the green of her husband’s envy, haunts the castle battlements, looking out towards Brithdir, where her lover resides. Most often sighted on top the northwest tower where the Welsh flag flies, I was left pondering why Alice’s spirit would return to this little damp corner. Known as a sad, mournful sight, she embodies a peculiar mix of moral warnings: adultery, lust and the Anglo-Norman wrath. But her green is also a mirror to envy, her husband’s greatest fault.

Like Medusa, with whom I was fascinated as a child on watching the fairly dire Clash of the Titans, we read her differently with time. Made ugly and lethal by unreasonable Athena for ‘inciting’ Poseidon to rape her in Athena’s temple, Athena does in fact make Medusa powerful: her very glance destroys men who seek to usurp her.

Perhaps then, Alice’s ghost, whose green might be nothing more than foliage and sunlight, might also stand for women who seek to deflect society’s expectations right back.

Tracey Rhys is a poet, freelance writer and copy editor from Bridgend. A Literature Wales Bursary recipient with an MA in Creative Writing from Cardiff University, her first pamphlet of poems, Teaching a Bird to Sing (Green Bottle Press, 2016) was a recommended title in The TLS in its round-up of Michael Marks Award submissions for 2017. She has been published in journals including Planet, works closely with Cardiff theatre company, Winterlight, a subsidiary of Company of Sirens, and her poetry has featured in numerous stage productions as monologue and libretto. She was recently a writer in the Literature Wales/Cadw project, Weird and Wonderful Wales, in collaboration with the artist Pete Fowler.

© Tracey Rhys, 2018. Images © Pete Fowler, 2017.