Liam Guilar: The Punishments


Math uab Mathonwy


‘The Punishments’ is a version of an incident in the Medieval Welsh story, Math uab Mathonwy. The original story is in prose and told in the third person, with no comment or explanation as to why these three animals are chosen. I wanted to try the story from Gwydion’s perspective. Math, his uncle, is the king. They are both magicians, though Math is more powerful. Math’s peculiarity is that unless he’s at war his feet must rest in the lap of a young woman. Gwydion’s younger brother is obsessed with the current foot holder, Goewin. Knowing what he’s doing is wrong, instead of telling his brother to get on with his life, Gwydion tricks a southern prince, Pryderi, into starting a war. Math leaves the court and the brothers sneak back and rape Goewin in his absence. They then try to avoid Math. When Goewin tells Math what the brothers have done, he takes care of her and then their punishment is brutal and appropriate. Whether Gwydion learns anything from it is another matter.


Liam Guilar: ‘The Punishments’


Math’s ban went out
against our meat and drink.
We hungered
in the wastelands,

hunting, but knowing
we had no future,
finally went in.
Math, most eloquent of men,

gagging on rage and humiliation.
A glacier about to avalanche,
watching us approach
his ornate wooden throne.

Good day to you, I said,
The formal greeting of the court,
braving his silence:
my brother ready to bolt.

You are here to repay me?
He carved each word
onto the air between us.
Lord, let your will be done.

If it had been my will, shaking,
there would not be
men dead, men maimed,
farms burnt, crops ruined.

You cannot pay for the insults
you have done to me,
or atone for the death of Pryderi
or the harm you did the girl.

That wand. His hand
no longer shaking, struck
with surety and speed
beyond my competence.

My twitching brother,
a trembling doe
too swiftly done
for disbelief.

Remembering an open window,
thinking peregrine or swift and
if I were quick then he was faster.
The faintest flick, an insect landing.

He touched me with that stick
and I an antlered stag,
baffled by walls, stone floors
so many humans.

His words were maggots in my skull:
You were equal partners in this crime
so now go forth together
with the nature of the form you wear,

and when their season comes
desire will drive you to each other
and though you know it to be wrong
you will mate, producing offspring.

Return with it, a year from now.

A year, no waking moment free
from fear. Alert, prepared to flee.
I saw the strongest stag run down
and shredded for a hunter

by his pack of slobbering hounds.
The wolf pack preying on us
cutting out the weakest
their death cries in my ears.

Fear understood along the nerves
in tensing muscles, panicked pause.
instinctive flight. And in the season,
the big stags fought for mating rights

but I was driven, even in the act
knowing this was my brother.
Hatred for Math, a constant ache
defiling the safest day.

Until, compelled we moved
towards the compound
braving the baying dogs
we could hear behind the walls.

Math came out to greet us.
Eagerly I waited for that wand.
He tricked us. Struck.
And I was sow; my bother boar.

Another year. Another mating.

Returning once again.
No longer wanting my revenge.
Wanting to be human,
to use the words

trapped behind my tongue.
Again he tricked us.
Wolves this time, predators,
thrilled to chase and kill.

But the gravitational pull
of the pack. Everything
with the pack, for the pack.
Nothing done that didn’t help the pack.

A vague unease;
compassion’s ghost
for the pigs we hunted,
the deer we tore apart.

With our cub,
back to the walls,
the baying dogs,
and Math.

I am content, he said.
I offer you my friendship
and forgiveness.
The final blow.

We were reborn human,
on our knees before him.
In our filth before his finery.
Take them to the hot baths.
See they are fed and groomed.
then lead them to my chamber.

Liam Guilar lives in Australia. His most recent poetry books are A Presentment of Englishry (2019) and A Man of Heart (2023), both published by Shearsman books. Both are part of an ongoing attempt to retell three stories from a 12th century poem. ‘The Punishments’ will be part of the third and final book in the sequence. His website is

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