Tracey Rhys on the impetus for her four Bathsheba poems in Issue Twelve.
There has only been one dream in my life that I have ever written about, although I’ve often woken up convinced that I’d dreamt the best plot ever, only to realise … well, it was a bit shit really. This one was different. It came to me in the 1990s. It was a time of Spice Girls and Cool Cymru, the Stereophonics and Tony Blair. Cardiff Bay was a muddy dockyard, the Arms Park filled the streets with fans every matchday and the Millennium Stadium was a plan on a desk. Within a couple of years, I would move to a flat on the opposite bank and hear that place being built from the ground up, in echoes and booms, steel girders croaking on crane hooks. But not yet. Right then I was at home, fresh from Aberystwyth University with my spanking-new arts degree, pining for freedom as I knew it, objecting to the 7am start that came with my first job and living in Maerdy, my hometown, right at the top of the Rhondda Valley.
So, the dream goes like this (in the technicolour of a 1950s Hollywood epic like I, Spartacus or The Robe): I am wearing long silk clothes and slipping out of a building. I have a child with me, a boy of six or seven. He is sleepy and mute; there is urgency in the silence. It is night-time. At first, the windows illuminate the hilly scrub, but we’re eager to be out from under its light, glad of the total blackout of the landscape.
It’s cold and the boy is grizzling. Sand blows and stings his skin. I tuck him against me, pull my veil over his head to keep the grains from his eyes and arms. A time of running and stumbling passes before we reach a clearing, better lit by the stars and a cloudless moon, with a small cliff rising to our right and the quiet sounds of horses on the ledge above. A rope ladder is lowered and the child climbs. Men lean over, reaching into the air to grasp him, raising him up by the forearms, safe and over the ledge. And me next. Me next. It takes an age. At the top, I see a man’s foot in a sandal. A hand reaches for mine. The relief as he grips my wrist and pulls me close; we are safe, I think. I am almost at the edge but not quite. He holds me there and bends to speak quietly in my ear, ‘Bathsheba. Bathsheba … go back.’
It was the sort of dream that stays with you; the total physicality of it. I was as much in those moments as the ones that would follow, padding to the bathroom, splashing my face with water in the sink, tying up my hair. It would have been memorable even if my mother hadn’t enquired, as she sipped her second cup of tea in the doorway: did I know who Bathsheba was? Because she’d had a funny dream last night and someone had called her Bathsheba …
We compared notes. The child, the journey, the name, the place.
Just bizarre. The same dream. What did it mean? What could it mean?
I went to the bible and read the story, about David and Bathsheba (he of ‘David and Goliath’ fame, seer of prophecies, God’s ‘anointed’). Mind you, he didn’t seem quite so godly when he watched Bathsheba bathing in the courtyard of her house, summoned and impregnated her. As soon as he could, David called Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, home from war in the hope that he could pass the child off as his. But being an elite soldier, Uriah refused to return to the house of his wife to maintain his discipline. So, David had him murdered by proxy, sent on a suicide mission in battle. After the event, David took Bathsheba as his eighth wife and the child was stillborn.
So why am I still writing about this, twenty-four years later? The truth is, I can’t shake Bathsheba off. I began by writing a long poem for my MA creative writing portfolio back in 1998. It was a kind of ballad, I suppose, closely followed by poems with titles like Leah, Rachel, Anna; anyone I could find who was little more than a name in a man’s journey in the Old Testament. But they were ordinary stories all the same, of love and rejection, pain and cruelty, family feuds and betrayals. So many untold stories.
In these new poems, the women’s lives are on repeat. Why? Because the essence of Bathsheba remains. She is anyone who feels trapped by society, defined by their sex or the skin they are in, who is dust in a storm, with freedoms always just out of reach. How do we move forward when we keep living the same lives? How do we make ourselves visible in a new world order? We used to protest (those were the days). But these are the days. Write, make art, make music, blog, see theatre, shout about it, be part of it. Make yourself heard, Bathsheba.
Tracey Rhys’ first pamphlet, Teaching a Bird to Sing (Green Bottle Press, 2016) was longlisted for the Michael Marks Award in 2017. Her poetry has been exhibited at The Senedd and has been integrated into two stage plays for Winterlight/Company of Sirens. Examples of her work can be found in Planet, New Welsh Review, the anthologies Poems from the Borders (Seren) and Bloody Amazing! (Yaffle Press).
Author photo by Michou Burckett St. Laurent