Pwyll and Rhiannon, from The Mabinogi

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    It’s little more than a bump in the land, a footnote
    in the catalogue of hills, crags and ridges,
    felt as an ache in the thighs, the heart’s
    flip and gulp, by those heavy
    with mutton and wine,

    then a subtle sense of arrival, a breezes
    currying up to attend to you,
    the green swell of crown, the fields
    gathering below.

    They say if you sit on the summit
    you’ll see a sight more chilling
    than the greys of rain,

    or something more brilliant than
    lightning’s snazzy gold.

    From up here, everything is cloud: the grass, forest, corn,
    even the rocks, are nuances of weather.
    The road’s a white line through the billows.
    He watches with his men as
    a figure grows there:

    a horse with a lick of sunlight on its back,
    a horse with a knight in gilt armour,
    a horse with a splash of silk
    horsewoman riding,

    not so much moving as sharpening.
    Will she ever be real?
    The boy he sends down

    finds the road silent, her back
    already dwindling.

    She is woman and horse. She rides slower than daydreams.
    She is what you’ve forgotten, where the time went.
    Singleminded as the sun, she rides
    always one way, and the air’s
    warmed by her passing.

    The man he sends after her, the second day,
    tries slowing down; she rides slower still
    and the road grows between them.
    He gallops again –

    always she dawdles away from him
    till she’s as small as a gnat,
    and his horse gasping.

    She slips into yesterday
    without being now.

    On the third day he rides himself, on his sleekest horse,
    till it’s yeasty with sweat. She is a brushstroke
    on the stillness of the facing page,
    illuminated in gold
    on a green background

    and there is always a white space between them.
    At last he calls out to her to stop,

    There’s a wispy sound, the sense
    of a veil lifting,

    and they are side-by-side, flank to flank,
    He should have asked her sooner –
    better for the horse.

    They talk in time to the hoofs:
    saddle-courtesies.

    Later he will ask himself how she knew who he was
    and why she chose him out of all the princes
    who hunt under these lumbering clouds.
    Now he is watching her smile
    as it comes and goes,

    a slip of candlelight seen under a door,
    listening to the cluck of laughter
    that nestles deep in her throat,
    hearing himself talk

    in the silences she leaves for him.
    Later they will feast and dance
    and climb the long stairs.

    Later he’ll wonder. Today
    there’s wonder enough.


    Matthew Francis is the author of four Faber collections, most recently Muscovy (2013). In 2004 he was chosen as one of the Next Generation Poets. He has edited W. S. Graham’s New Collected Poems, and published a collection of short stories and two novels, the second of which, The Book of the Needle (Cinnamon Press) came out in 2014. Faber reissued his Forward-shortlisted first collection, Blizzard (1996) in 2016 to mark its twentieth anniversary, and will publish his poetic version of The Mabinogi in 2017.