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Review: Three Poets

She Inserts The Key (Marianne Burton) (ISBN 978-1-78172-038-7, Seren, £8.99);
My Family and other Superheroes (Jonathan Edwards) (ISBN 978-1-78172-162-9, Seren, £9.99);
The Claims Office (Dai George) (ISBN 978-1-78172-090-5, Seren, £8.99)

First, some disclaimers. This isn’t intended as a review in the ordinary sense of an evaluative snook cocked for the benefit of poetry buyers everywhere, nor is it intended to be one of those round-ups that piles interesting first collections together in a hurry so that pages can be saved for reviews of poetry’s headline acts. Rather, this is a review in the sense that these three books provide an opportunity for serious reflection on the new English-language poets emerging from Wales – a chance to look back and see both what they have achieved, and what they might go on to accomplish.

And accomplishment is a good word with which to begin a review of these books, because it’s here in spades. Marianne Burton’s collection in particular deserves praise for her inventive but restrained rapport with the sonnet form, spinning out twenty-five of these variations into her sequence Meditations on the Hours. As in so many of Burton’s poems, there’s a deep-seated intelligence governing her verse’s interaction with the conventions of the form, so that the sequence begins with the juxtaposition between the more conventionally-structured Hallaton: Before the Storm and the looser Lille: Night Walk with Falling Television. In the former, the well-oiled apparatus of octave and sestet is out in force, yet the rhymes of the sestet weaken into echo:

Now, in the owl-stirred blackness –
moon in the birdbath, wind in the grass –
something is getting up, filing its iron nails.

On the garden bench, a book flicks its leaves
over and back, as if being re-assessed,
as if being read by a critic not easily pleased.

The magnetic images of the first tercet disguise a deft formal movement, as the terminal sounds of the lines are gradually swallowed up in an internal music, culminating in the delicate alternations of b-d-p sounds in the final two lines. Comparing this with the final lines of its companion poem gives us a sense of where we are being led:

We are x-ray white, in as many pieces
as the punched stars, demanding narrative
where none exists, raging at the stones.

There is a moment of remarkable freedom here, an instant of realisation that comes as much from image as it does from the music of call and response Burton builds across each caesura. It is as though we are being offered an image of the sonnet broken open and being found to contain whole constellations of nuance and variation. For me, this moment, so early in Burton’s collection, has come to define the work as a whole; it is an apt demonstration of her rapport with the form, and her ability to turn this gift to the serious business of injecting the otherworldly into the mundane.

Burton’s engagement with the various species of mundanity, however, is where her collection begins to lose ground. Despite the consummate craft on display here, there is an ingrained dependence upon certain registers that do as much to work against Burton’s skills as it allows them to shine. This can lead to lines that, though well structured, still have the capacity to make me hesitate – as at the beginning of Four Village Poems From the Chinese:

Halfway through the midden of our years
we bought a house in a Midlands valley.

Now when depression hits I wade with hares
through wheat, or walk in pasture with Charolais;

My objection to this is partly that its engagement with the pastoral doesn’t appear to have much behind it beyond that melancholic twist; but, more pressingly, it’s that it feels like a path a little too well-trodden. The poem’s talk of Charolais and horse-ploughs seems to lead directly into some quaint tea-room, right down to the (locally) hand-made armchairs and an (organic) plate of scones. When Burton’s attention slips for a moment, I find that her work begins to exude a tacit acceptance of these registers, unquestioningly adopting the veneer that our language has put on this rural landscape.

Luckily there aren’t too many of these moments, and Burton’s craft shines throughout. There are flashes of a more widely-tuned poetic radar, too, as in Head on a Desert Road, where Burton explores a wider sense of place and emplacement:

It sits propped like a bollard
by the unmade roadside,
its dark hair
neatly trimmed

a triangle of skin
stripped off its neck,
sinew protruding
in rags of sea wrack.

What fascinates me here is that Burton, confronted by a subject that exudes challenge from every morbid pore, has retained both the inner poise of her craft and the faintest echo of those unquestioned registers. The ‘rags of sea wrack’ sit in tension with the stark realism of the other lines, an almost unbidden nod to the safer hinterlands of nature poetry that occupy so much of the rest of the book. It also points towards a solution to Burton’s difficulties with the pastoral, connecting these distant landscapes with our own lived-in, gentrified environments of afternoon strolls and wistful looks at the ocean. Rendering the two co-present through this image, Burton both reveals the weaknesses of her work and its marvelous potential: Head on a Desert Road doesn’t come across as her most successful poem, yet in tying together the distant and the near-at-hand she indicates the territories of complicity, danger and alarm that she can discover for us.

Jonathan Edwards’ collection takes a very different approach. Where Burton’s poems feel controlled to the point of being sedate, Edwards revels in the quixotic and mercurial. His flagship pieces, Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren in Crumlin for the filming of Arabesque, June 1965, and Evel Knievel Jumps Over my Family demonstrate an infectious delight in all the quirky dreamlike visions that weigh in upon a modern Welsh identity. The latter poem in particular demonstrates Edwards’ full-tilt approach to verse:

Mr Knievel has faced much bigger challenges:
double-deckers, monster trucks, though the giraffe

is urban legend. Evel Knievel enters,
Eye of the Tiger drowned by cheers,
his costume tassels, his costume a slipstream,
his anxious face an act to pump the crowd,

The listing and repetition eke out the hyperbolic tendencies of the poem wonderfully, doubling and redoubling the effects of Edwards’ infectious élan; as in so many of his best poems, we are drawn forward through the interplay of the ridiculous and the heart-achingly serious. Indeed, Edwards might best be described as a surrealist in the true sense of the word, his verse a steady-handed scraping away at the surfaces of contemporary reality to reveal emotional truths.

Edwards’ versions of that contemporary reality are tightly focused around his portrayals of the South Wales valleys. Unlike Burton’s Hallaton, however, he aims less for a landscape painting than he does for a more human geography, exploring the idioms and idiosyncrasies of his family and his ties to Ebbw Vale. So much so that his collection often feels like a portrait gallery squeezed inside a cramped terrace house: it’s bursting at the seams with the sort of vignettes that characterised the earlier work of northern poets like Simon Armitage and Andrew Waterhouse a decade and more ago. Edwards’ poem Building my Grandfather, for example, bears remarkable affinities to Waterhouse’s Climbing my Grandfather. Consider these two extracts from the former and the latter respectively:

He comes flat-pack, a gift for my eighteenth.
We tip the bits out on the living room carpet:
nuts and bolts, a spanner, an Allen key,
tubes halfway between telescopes and weapons.
At first he goes together easily:
slippered left foot clicks into the ankle,
shin joins at a perfect right angle.
(Jonathan Edwards, Building my Grandfather)

I decide to do it free, without a rope or a net.
First, the old brogues, dusty and cracked;
an easy scramble onto his trousers,
pushing into the weave, trying to get a grip.
By the overhanging shirt I change
direction, traverse along his belt
to an earth stained hand.
(Andrew Waterhouse, Climbing my Grandfather; from In, Rialto, 2000)

There’s a kind of genetic closeness here that raises significant questions about the foundations of Edwards’ verse – not just in the similarity of subject but in their similarity of approach, tone and style. There’s the loosely disarming end-stopped opening line that also frames the conceit; the quick segue into a list that forms an affirmation of a specific set of homely details; the phrasing that slots the whole thing into a sort of earnest free verse; and so on. It’s a list that I’ve seen repeated elsewhere (not least in my own writing) but the comparison with Waterhouse demands the question: have first collections really stagnated that much in fifteen years? Edwards’ work is far from stagnant – it’s lively, engaging, and often witty – but it leaves me with a lingering impression that this collection is often meeting the expectations of a specific  side of contemporary poetry culture rather than breaking into new territories. As with any collection that seeks a kind of celebration of the ordinary, there’s a risk that too much is being taken as read, and that potential difficulties are not so much swept aside as rendered invisible by limitations of perspective.

If this seems somewhat unfair to Edwards’ obvious gifts as a poet – well, it is. Out of the three poets reviewed here, I ended up feeling that his collection had both the most to offer the casual reader and the least to offer those who might express reservations about all that is nearest to the surface in contemporary poetry. Edwards has produced verse of compelling charm and grace here, and his lively portraiture of valleys people past and present will ring true with many readers. But perhaps the comparison with Andrew Waterhouse cuts into Edwards’ collection in other ways: Waterhouse’s poetry interspersed the heartwarming with the chilling, the tragic, and the outright strange in ways that went beyond the merely quirky or charming. Edwards’ work perhaps surpasses Waterhouse in its formal sharpness and technical acuity but, in this first book at least, he hasn’t yet found Waterhouse’s reach.

On the surface, Dai George’s The Claims Office offers a similar experience to Edwards’ collection. As in Edwards’ work, there’s the same rather masculine approach to free verse, enlivened at a few key points by some more formal morsels, as with Mojitos:

In an Upper Westside corner where the food
comes hopelessly before the drinks,
we strategize, give exes attitude
and club together to fathom this jinx:

how is it we can be so wholly free,
so on the brink of going global,
when all our dowdy history
prevents us being here in total?

There’s a reasonable sample of George’s style on view here, a reflexively hip and urbane voice maneuvering shades of Tony Harrison into the poetic equivalent of a ninety-dollar haircut. Where Burton’s sonnets almost exploded out of the page (and the form) in their restless inventiveness, George instead toys with the inner spaces of the form, maneuvering its restrictions into a kind of harmony with his dry delivery. It’s less of a bravura performance, perhaps, but there’s a subtle charm to the interplay of registers (‘exes attitude’ versus ‘dowdy history’) that indicates George’s verse is on an equally firm footing.

Some of that firmness seems in part due to George’s verse reflecting his extended education in academic creative writing. This has its drawbacks, of course – there are moments where, as in Edwards’ poetry, I feel like I’ve seen a little too much of this before. What makes The Claims Office so different from the other collections reviewed here, however, are the points when George’s well-heeled voice slips to reveal some harder edges. Where the subjects of faith and spirituality rise to the surface, George’s writing takes on a refreshing fierceness, as in Tyndale:

                                                  I tense
for the fight they so dearly want,
but instead of argument

comes the thought of him
hounded to Antwerp, unravelling
the Pentateuch’s secret so that soon,
somewhere back in Gloucestershire,
a ploughboy may know God’s Fiat Lux
in the ragged light of his own tongue.

With this stanza break comes a tacit acceptance that this register of  ‘ragged light’ and the contested Pentateuch simply cannot share space with the realist modernity that George has established elsewhere in his work. Rather, the juxtaposition of vision against argument here creates a startling image: a rationalist framework shaken loose in the emotional turmoil of revelation, an unravelling from which George’s verse can barely recover. George feels far less comfortable in binding ploughboys and Pentateuchs together, the terminal sound of ‘tongue’ suggesting a hollowness that leaves the inherent richness of that ‘Fiat Lux’ unanswered within the language of the poem. Fundamentally, the ‘ragged light’ feels like an image only superficially suggesting a resolution. The imprecise links between the Latin and English registers of the poem point to a profound difficulty beneath the attempt to reconcile spiritual light and ordinary raggedness. To me, at least, it indicates more than just the tensions of spiritual past and rational present; that sudden deadening of the poem’s music is a glimpse of history’s undercurrent, the riptides of reformation and counter-reformation sounded out by an ambitious and sensitive ear. Tyndale is not a successful poem in the conventional sense, but it feels animated and vital, willing to set aside a degree of polish in order to reach for something much more troubling and profound.

Moments like this make George’s collection a truly satisfying read: I like The Claims Office best when it reaches for a political or spiritual edge. Its ambition can leave the verse seeming raw and unpolished in places, but I admire it greatly nonetheless. There’s an intellectual acuity and a spiritual engagement here that places George’s poetry ahead of his peers, despite its occasional reminders that this is still the stuff of a first collection. I can’t bring myself to endorse all of George’s formal experiments – as with his use of long-line forms whose alternating indented lines sprawl across the page – but even there his verse possesses a tenacity that underlines his unwillingness to take the success of producing a first collection for granted. There’s a sort of triumph, I suspect, in producing work about which nobody should write an outright encomium, but which nonetheless suggests a serious literary career well begun.

Not that this suggestion is absent from the other collections here: Burton comes across as an inventive and technically mature poet, while Edwards’ charm and bravura can hardly  suggest anything other than a writer whose next move should be eagerly anticipated. If they are prone to sounding a little too much like their contemporaries at times, such lapses are readily understandable in the context of a first collection. The poets reviewed here are each laudable in their own right, and each has something unique to offer their readers.

It’s possible to go further, though, in pulling at the common threads that tie these collections together. The work of Burton, Edwards and George shares more than just the common ground of the modern poetry paperback, or the prize and magazine culture that gives birth to new poets. They bear witness, too, to the anxieties of a marginal culture staring down the barrel of a difficult new century. Burton, for example, finds room in her collection for the world’s vanishing languages in her poem The Extinction of Mary Smith Jones:

In the glass front of the museum cabinet
over masks of dead and dying civilizations
push the fat reflections of the living.

[…]

Mary Smith Jones, last full-blooded member
of the saltwater Eyak, people of the southern flats,
dwellers of the Copper River […]

The museum setting offers Burton easy access to the tensions between external and internal perspectives on a language, between the ‘dough-faced men with microphones’ who come to study the language and the world of killer whales and salmon to which the language gave form and meaning. The device of an interrupting member of airport staff gives similar impetus to Edwards’ witty sestina In John F. Kennedy International Airport:

                               I showed my ticket, was surprised
when she said, ‘That’s been cancelled. Sorry sir.’
‘The flight to Cardiff’s off?’ I said. ‘It can’t be, can it?’
‘No sir,’ she said, ‘you don’t quite understand. Wales
has been cancelled. It no longer exists.’

Here too the idea of museums gets a look-in, with Edwards imagining a museum of Welsh kitsch – located somewhere in Kansas, stacked with the usual ‘male voice choirs’ and ‘bonneted crones’ – as a means of framing anxieties over the impact of an external and unsympathetic authority on Welsh identity. Whether it’s equating localised experience with the stuffed dodo, or framing culture and language in ecological terms, both allow Burton and Edwards to scratch the same sort of itch. However, while it’s refreshing to see this longstanding issue in both Welsh- and English-language poetry from Wales tackled by a new generation, I’m troubled by these poems’ implicit helplessness in the face of that external authority. They give the disappearance of political and cultural identity the inevitability of a natural force, and I find this inherently objectionable. It would take a set of arguments considerably more persuasive than the ones displayed here to make me accept that the sledgehammer force of evolution works on poetry just as it works on the viscous membranes of the snail. Despite their clever articulation of the grounds for debate here, I can’t help but feel that Burton and Edwards have missed an opportunity to properly join it.

Yet the wider engagement with a sense of place rings true throughout these collections, from George’s remarkable and tender Reclaiming the View through to Edwards’ loving look at a landscape more like home in View of Valleys Village from a Hill. Even Burton, whose work doesn’t participate in issues of Welsh identity as directly as that of Edwards and George, still finds room for a comparable sensitivity to place, locality, and cultural specificity. There are notes here that reverberate within a wider circle of poets from this new generation – important new writers such as Anna Lewis and Rhian Edwards in particular come to mind. It’s also possible to see echoes of older generations of Welsh writers here – Gillian Clarke, perhaps, in their engagement with place, maybe even Gwyneth Lewis’ cultural polemic Y Llofrudd Iaith. More crucial, however, to this new generation’s approach is that Wales provokes poetry more readily as a place than it does as an idea. Sometimes it is an emotional landscape, sometimes something more nearly spiritual, but even in abeyance or threatened with extinction, it is not a politicising backdrop or a theatre for the interplay of ideologies. It is a kind of terra firma from which these poets step off into the unknown.

Posted 4 years ago

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