Mab Jones serves up a Welsher than usual selection of poetry this month, with best-ofs by south Wales faves Patrick Jones and Tôpher Mills, among others.
Much With Body (Seren, price: £9.99) subsumes the reader into the Lake District, with many of the poems possessing a strong watery feel. Even out of the lakes themselves, there are ponds, rain, veins (those liquid-carrying inlets), and ‘wet’ creatures such as frogs and leeches. Additionally, there are bears and brambles, because Atkin is a fine observer of nature in all its forms, but the fluidity and fluency of the language, and that solvent sense, flows throughout.
A central section takes the diaries of Dorothy Wordsworth and repurposes her prose to make some very interesting poems indeed – it’s the diarist’s 250th birthday this year, so her work is very timely right now – whilst others focus on Atkin’s own observations, imaginative ideas, and experiences. There is clearly a philosophical mind behind these poems, but Much With Body is modern and approachable, with an undercurrent of irony evident in poems like Mountain in which the poet makes a play on the word ‘fell’. There is also some vehemence, evident in those poems addressing illness, ableism, and the body, as in the piece Sick Girl Theory. In all, a powerfully potent reading experience.
From water to cloud, Path Through Wood (Prototype, price: £12) features a series of ‘cloud studies’ that may be literal or metaphorical, amidst other poems that are very often cloudy, shifting, mercurial. If Atkin’s element is water, then Buchan-Watts’ is air, and so we have poems such as Sky Pavilion, Pillar Of Smoke, and another which contemplates pigeons. Like a winged creature, this is a poet who can, at any moment, take flight, carrying the reader on his wing into high imagination. The air there is rarefied, but Buchan-Woods seems to breathe it as though it is his norm.
There are several prose poems in this collection that showcase the writer’s easy way with the intellectual and the experimental, as he uses language to explore, escalate ideas, and jump off into the ether. Several images early on reference “canvas”, “curtain”, “blinds” and screens – this is a poet, I feel, who wishes to break through the “dirty window” of limited, mundane perception, and transport us (and himself) away from “the pissing boy [who] sees germs squirm” and “the caustic stink of piss”, on to something cleaner, freer, less limited and far beyond “a plastic picture of the process”. This is very definitely a book that does that, and admirably.
We Have To Leave The Earth (Seren, price £9.99) begins with an epigraph that sets the tone of the book: “Will you tell us the stories that make us uncomfortable but not complicit?” (Ada Limón). From the beginning, there is no shying away by this poet as she bears witness to our ravaging of the Arctic and of each other, and various forms of violence. Amidst the brutality, however, there is beauty, and the grisly and grim are very often transmuted to something more refined, even rather spiritual, through the writer’s fine, lucid language. She may, for example, inhabit a “bloodied birthing pool” within a poem, but this is tempered by the tender image of a child “anchored to you / by a sky-blue rope”.
Jess-Cooke performs a similar ‘birthing’ feat in many of these pieces, creating something new, fresh, and wondrous from darkly disconsolate scenes. In other pieces, the poet inhabits particular voices, perhaps most obviously in her sequence evoking early feminist activist Josephine Butler. In these, gruesome facts are embedded within the poems and expressed with candour and clarity, the tone never tipping over into the melodramatic or overwrought, which I find to be the tendency when writing of such terrible human rights abuses; rather, the poet manages to remain always clear-headed. The result is poems that are strong, yet empathic; steely, but compassionate. It’s an extremely powerful admixture and I urge you to read it.
A “new and selected” collection of poems: fuse/fracture (Parthian, price: £10) by Welsh icon Patrick Jones. One of the books that this selection draws from is The Guerilla Tapestry, which I bought in HMV in the mid-90s; shortly after this, I published a poem by Patrick in my bedroom-made small press magazine Axiom (I don’t think he knew I was a schoolgirl at the time…). Anyway, it’s nice to have an anecdote about an icon, I always think, and Jones has been looming large on the Welsh scene and beyond since that time, with books by publishers such as Rough Trade and others. Parthian have finally brought together this long overdue anthology of the poet who, if you know his work at all, often draws ink from that very visceral spectrum that veers between rage and sorrow, anger and loss.
So, there are protest poems here, acting as a call to arms, and there are elegies of mourning alongside them. However, there are also poems detailing the domestic, relationships, and feelings such as loneliness, which the poet describes getting used to “The way an old cardigan moulds / To your shoulders”. There is a wry, ironic humour to some pieces, and a particular favourite for me was the sweet, funny, and sublime Meditations Upon The Mundane, in which “Washing the dishes / can save marriages”. It probably says more about me and my age, of course, that I now prefer Jones’ more tender insights over what my teenage self would have adored, that is, the more political poems; but together, again, this makes for a very compelling mix. And, icons being icons, we have to love them because they are never a stereotype, but always an archetype – the original from which patterns are made – as Patrick Jones and his poetry most certainly is.
Mankerian is another poet who isn’t afraid to face horror. In History Of Forgetfulness (Fly On the Wall Press, price: £9.99), the survivor of the Lebanese civil war plunges us straight into Beirut, 1975, and proceeds to paint a horrifying picture – of bullets, brutality, a city full of ‘lost children’ – but, touchingly, through the innocence, wide eyes, and candour of a child. These ‘memories’, being first-person, bring a radiant empathy to the subject of each piece, and makes the book as a whole extremely accessible to a reader.
Despite, or perhaps because of, being a school principal, Mankerian has a knack for inhabiting the child’s viewpoint, although the works here are naturally informed by the adult’s more worldly understanding too. As with most children, even those without parents, mothers and fathers are key figures here, though both are tinged with religious associations in these works, and the father, in particular, is painted as menacing, even malignant. Schooling, education, and teachers also play their part, as you would expect, the opening lines of the book’s opening poem demonstrating the writer’s dry humour: “I got my schooling at the morgue: / … It was a booming business, death.” Another poet, then, who has witnessed atrocity, but does not dwell in self-pity.
A Winter 2021 Poetry Book Society Recommendation is Two Twin Pipes Sprout Water (Prototype, price: £12). Prototype, also behind Path Through Wood, produce very high-quality books, on thick paper and, from the ones I have seen – I am a subscriber to their annual anthology and have bought others in their title list – in a larger-than-usual format. This gives the books an instant feel of weightiness, in a physical sense, but also demonstrates Prototype’s commitment to verse, and their investment in it.
Matsumoto is a very dextrous writer, who winds her way through a multiplicity of voices and views. Her pieces are, for the most part, prose, poetry, or a meld of the two, but always they are inventive, imaginative, and entirely unpredictable, with a sinewy sense of what if? and a clear relish of creative play, sometimes veering towards the surreal. Visually masterful, painting images like an artist, and summoning scenes from nothing, so that we see them clearly in our own mind’s eye, Matsumoto also has a joyful, wayward sense of humour which made me snort-laugh here and there. If you like your poetry wildly inventive, then this is the book for you!
Another ‘selected’ by a Welsh legend, Tôpher Mills, who offers us a plate of Sex On Toast (Parthian, price: £10). Again, I’m showing my age when I reveal that I bought Mills’ pamphlet, The Dancing Drayman, from a bookshop maybe 20 years ago. Mills, like Jones, is one of the poets who I read before I wrote myself, and who made me feel like there were other local writers, out there, somewhere… His work made a marked impression on me at that age.
I later had the pleasure of including Mills in the Poetry In The Arcades project, so do check out his poem in Cardiff arcades when you can. The poem for that was in Kerrdif dieyuhlekkt(!?), which is one of Mills’ specialities, as he’s written a whole host of brilliant pieces which bring the capital’s dialect cleverly, compassionately, and hilariously to life.
However, there are many poems which are in other vernaculars in this collection, too, and the book’s blurb rightly trumpets the poet’s ability, in his subject matter, to likewise traverse anywhere – as in the poem Lavernock Point, a silly-sordid story of a couple trying to rut on a beach. This is a poem that showcases Mills’ perfect pace, artful storytelling, fantastic way with detail (“whiskery nipples”, anyone?) and impish sense of irony. It’s warm, funny, imaginative, and full of as much mischievousness as sympathy – rather like the poet himself. The poems here shift through settings, subjects, and moods, but always there’s this sense of a keen intellect and rich soul behind them. Evocative, engaging, and entertaining, this is a true gem of a book.
words MAB JONES
Discover how our brand new learning experience is giving young people in Wales the skills they need to get ahead