Gillian Clarke

The Physicians of Myddfai

for Mary Lloyd-Jones

At Llyn y Fan Fach

A crack in glass,

the scream and shadow

of a Hawk, close and low

enough to blow the heart.


Like a bowl of milk

the mountain cups the lake

where the Ages of Stone,

Bronze and Iron left their bones

under the earth, under the water

with the lake king’s daughter.

Every day he dreams her face

a ferment on the surface

at dawn as the sun casts

its net of light from the east.

With his mother’s bread

he’ll win her to his bed.

The spell is buttermilk and barm,

grains ground between stones,

pummelled and set to warm

by a wood-fire or under the sun.

Such leavening as suddenly she breaks

the waters of the lake.

Three loaves,

three chances for love

to cross the boundaries

of time and history,

of water and stone.

On the third day she is his own.

Three strikes of metal and she’s gone.

The ages drown,

dissolved into the past,

the story of the lake lies lost

in archaeology, the myths and silts

of ancient settlements.


Three sons were born of the union

of Stone Age and Celt, of stone and iron,

of earth-skills and art.

Their inheritance their father’s grief,

their mother’s way with herbs to bring relief

to body and heart.


What do the children say

when they’ve gazed into the story

playing itself in their hearts

in the quiet of the classroom,

in the quiet of a voice reading

and pages turning?

When the book is closed

they’re silent at the mystery of loss.

Then Joe says: It’s not twins.

It’s a girl and her reflection.

Bethan says: She’s the Stone Age.

He’s the Iron Age.

Emma says: The lake is death.

David says: The lake is the past.

Manon says: It’s true then.

Then they’re silent at the hurt of it.


Linctus, cordials, electuaries, quoils,

conserves of borage, bugloss and burdock,

scurvy grass, cowslip, wormwood, rue.

Bittersweet, heartsease, hemlock.

The sons of the sons of the sons

of the woman of water

and the man of the earth,

carried the art of healing

down the generations,

as if the human mind

were an amphora of precious oils

that must never be spilt.

History’s blurred with legend,

but the physicians’ names

are on the graves at Myddfai,

their secrets buried with their bones.

Their place a safe house

for wild and tame. The otter’s home,

black oil sleeking the night river

leaving its sprent on the stones.

From them we might have learned

the healing balm of plants.

Will this be the day they loose

the furious gene, trampling

the heal-all that grows secretly

in a field singing with bees,

that might have given us what science

seeks in its test-tubes and trays?


She dips her brush in sky,

in rain, in mythology,

and comes up with who we are.

The brush unloads its cloud

in a jar to take its place

with stratocumulus,

a thunder-head to the south,

a trace of Western rose in cirrus

like pulled fleece on the Fan,

a front off the Atlantic

hitting high ground before


She paints with rain. A slab

of sunlight. A field dry-edged with walls.

All the colours of light.

Here at the lake, and later

in her schoolroom studio,

the paint-tubes’ poetry

is a remembered litany

of rose and purple madder, umber, crimson,

ochre and gold and cerulean blue,

Even white is a prism.

Even black is reached

through the rainbow’s narrowing tunnel.


A Stone Age hand in umber on a wall

gesturing with cave-beasts, symbols and script,

and the woman-sign, the vulva’s triangle,

the cup of blood, of pearl-seed.

Print of hoof, hand, paw, foot,

clawed, cloven, chiselled, calcified.

Suddenly we hear the heartbeat and breath

of a living beast, of a man,

or a woman calling from so long ago

we can believe she stood by tallow-light

to make her mark here on the cave’s page,

dipping her hand in blood.



The wind is bitter

and the air is stone.

We throw bread on the water

for a wild swan near the shore,

paddling alone.