Discourses of the Severed Head

Severed Head
The Severed Head: by Luke Sewell

So. It’s Hallowe’en, which seems an appropriate time to post a poem featuring a severed head.

A bit of background. The collection of mediaeval Welsh myths know as the Mabinogion includes the story of Branwen daughter of Llyr (that ‘y’ should have a circumflex, but my Mac can’t seem to manage that today). To trim the story, Brân, high king of Britain – the island of the mighty – ends up fighting a war in Ireland to rescue his sister, Branwen. It is a bloody war which results in the destruction of both war bands and Brân himself


Brân had been wounded in the foot with a poisoned spear. He commanded them to cut off his head. ‘Take my head,’ he said, ‘and carry it to the White Hill in London and bury it there with the head turned towards Gaul. You will be a long time on the road; you will spend seven years feasting at Harlech and the head will be as good a companion as ever it was.

That is the starting point for the sequence of poems which deals with Brân’s burial, his rediscovery by archaeologists in the 21st century, and his views on modern Britain. Each poem is a discourses addressed by the head to a different audience. Here’s the first one:

First Discourse: To His Followers

Be gentle my good lads: as table’s head
And conversation piece give me your care.
One clumsy touch will have me land

among the filth and rushes of the floor,
a meaty chunk for all the hounds
who gnaw their lives beside my chair.

Stand still. I want to count and see who’s here.
No one behind me? No? Is this what’s left?
Just seven, from all of Prydain’s glossy host?

And if the ravens grow not fat enough
my sister’s chilling slow beneath her cairn,
her fractured heart the end of all her grief.

Beyond the sea’s grey rim’s an empty land,
no Irish man alive on bog or hill:
as they would do to us, so have we done.

You have survived to nurse your wounds, recall
how in the bitter press our honour held,
a matter more than life, while comrades fell,

but think no further than the happy hour
when stomachs will be brimmed with flesh and mead.
You do not ask the when, the why, the how,

or what will be when we all sink to mould,
when this great hall, all timbers rotted, thieved,
is nothing more than grizzled stones, a mound

of grass, yet still the only sign we lived.
The ripples in the tussocked turf will say
that you have died, but I will not be marked

with cist or cairn or simple mound of soil.
The fraying walls of London will enclose
the little hill which is my journey’s stop.

But even underground my work won’t cease:
my life will fence about this wasted land
to keep off death and plague and bring you peace.

Don’t try to think it out, just wrap your hand
about your mug and drink till you can’t stand.

The other five discourses are available in my collection Minor Monuments, which is available on-line from (UK) Amazon.co.uk, Blackwells, Book Depository Ltd, Waterstones; (USA) Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble; (AUS/NZ) Booktopia.

Or, if you are in the UK, we can cut out the middleman and you can buy directly from me, so I get more of the sale price. I am happy to ship copies to anywhere in the UK for £7.99 (that includes P&P).

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