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February 08, 2011

The AWP Conference in Washington DC.

Writing about web page http://www.awpwriter.org/

Book Fair AWP

Last week was the AWP conference and it was the first time that I have been able to attend. Thanks to the support of NAWE and my colleague, the poet Carrie Etter, I was able to get down to Washington DC and it certainly was eye-opening.

AWP Stuff

I have never seen a book fair quite like it: four rooms the size of football pitches full of stalls for magazines, writing associations, small presses and festivals. As a British person living in the US, it has taken me a while to work out the landscape of the American literary scene. Going round the book fair gave me a chance to have a good look at some American magazines that I had never come across before. Some of my favourites were “American Poetry Review”, “Camera Obscura”, “Crazy Horse” , “Pleiaides” “Third Coast” “Tin House” and “Rain Taxi”. I had a meagre amount to spend, but I managed to buy a copy of Mary Jo Bang’s latest from Graywolf and a lovely little anthology of Surrealist poems translated by Paul Eluard.

Apart from the book fair, there were readings and discussions by writers all day long. I saw a fantastic panel on Iranian writing and human rights, a reading by Cave Canem poets, Eavan Boland being interviews and a great panel of readings on women, poetry and war.


Review of Poetry Pamphlets: Monk & Annwn, Skoulding & Davidson and McGuinness

Writing about web page http://www.newwelshreview.com/backissue_details.asp?issueID=31&issueNumber=79

Book front cover
Title:
Geraldine Monk and David Annwn, It Means Nothing to Me, West House Books. ZoŽ Skoulding and Ian Davidson, Dark Wires, West House Books. Patrick McGuinness, 19th Century Blues, Smith Doorstop.
Rating:
Not rated

[Many thanks to The New Welsh Review in which this article first appeared in 2008.]

Identity and language are considered in fruitful and demanding ways in a number of recent chapbooks. The most challenging of these recent pamphlets is Geraldine Monk’s and David Annwn’s It Means Nothing to Me, which, as the title suggests, plays with the idea of meaning and experiments with language in a style parallel to that of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets. If you are the kind of reader who enjoys a clear, obvious message in a personal, anecdotal style, then this poetry will seem difficult. If you are interested in how the structures of language define and control human beings, however, then this pamphlet-long poem is for you, because Monk and Annwn challenge all of our assumptions about language:

deep ina
lingo place
forgotten speech
grewspamfree
spores

Throwing out ordinary syntax and rejecting the need to make sense, Monk and Annwn create a bricolage which tests narrative and meaning in the same way that a “far out” piece of jazz tests melody and tunefulness. The repetition of the title, It Means Nothing to Me, might indicate that the compound words, obscure lexis and nonsensical style are simply an indication of the meaninglessness and inadequacies of language in an arbitrary world. There is some sense, however, in the nonsense of this poetry. Monk and Annwn create a new language intimately bound up with mystery and the refusal to reduce everything to the familiar:

the mystery
in
the mystery
almost
means
something to
me

This is challenging poetry that makes the reader work hard in a quest for understanding, but it also offers rich rewards in making the reader a part of creating the poem’s meaning.

Dark Wires, a pamphlet from Zoë Skoulding and Ian Davidson, the editors of Skald, also experiments with language. Like It Means Nothing to Me, Dark Wires is written by two poets, but while Monk and Annwn spiral away from any obvious personal voice, Dark Wires does seem to have a unified poetic speaker. This unity is interesting simply for the fact that it challenges the all-too-common assumption that the poet and the speaker are one and the same.

Dark Wires rejects a powerful or commanding voice, and takes the detritus of everyday life as its subject: the swollen matter of the garden, the kitchen’s paraphernalia, the mouldering basement and the bric-a-brac of living. In all of these locations, mundane objects are levers for the poetic experience:

chemical reactions of gypsum plaster formed a hard skin over the
work a wall does the way it holds up the roof and how the joists tie
in beneath the disturbed meniscus of boiling water spring greens

The language in this ‘Kitchen poem’ is full of resonance in phrases like ‘chemical reactions of gypsum plaster’ and ‘the disturbed meniscus of boiling water’. What is experimental is how it challenges grammar and syntax so that one clause runs into another and the lack of punctuation means that words can be read as part of one sentence or another. There is also a sense of the interconnectedness of the human body and the external world in the comparisons of plaster and skin, the cartilage of the meniscus and the surface tension of water. In this kind of poetry, boundaries blur between the inside and outside, between the human body and the external world. ‘Abasement Garden’ describes how the narrator ‘pushed out every shoot / a spring wound; ‘Shoals’ offers ‘a forest of blood’; and in ‘Skin and Bone’, the narrator describes how ‘something got under my skin maybe / a few short barbs breaking out into tissue’. The emphasis recalls Kristeva’s development of the term “abject” as a way to explain human anxiety about the boundedness of the body and threats to its wholeness. Skoulding’s and Davidson’s poetry embraces the body’s vulnerability and admits that human beings are not hermetically sealed units.

While Dark Wires reclaims an interconnectedness for human beings, Patrick McGuinness’ 19th Century Blues seems to be looking back to a period before isolating modernity truly began. McGuinness reframes the traumatic breakdown of nineteenth-century grand narratives through contemporary concerns. The couplet, ‘Déjà-Vu’, which opens the pamphlet (and closes it in a reversed form) represents McGuinness’ poetic project:

Two tenses grappling with one instant, one perception:
forgotten as it happens, recalled before it has begun.

McGuinness’ tone is riddling; it suggests questions. Which two tenses are grappling? Is this a reference to the reconciliation of the past and present? Or does it refer to prolepsis and a sense of the future in the present moment? The predicament of McGuinness’ poetic speaker is rather like that of Walter Benjamin’s angel of history caught between the past and the future, between remembering and forgetting. Like the angel of history, the speaker would like to ‘stay, awaken the dead and make whole what has been smashed’ but ‘a storm propels him into the future’.

Consequently, subjects for McGuinness’ poems are emptiness, loss and the obliteration of the self. In this poetics, silence and nothingness become a powerful mode of communication, so that, in ‘The Age of the Empty Chair’, the lack in the chair suggests change ‘the way a sail suggests the wind, the way a shell holds / a recording of the waves’. There are some remarkable descriptions in this pamphlet that record the power of the diminutive, the minor and the obscure: the quality of dust in ‘The Shape of Nothing Happening’; the ‘Black Box’ that records a marriage; and the ‘long white knotted cry’ of snow in ‘The Thaw’.

This preoccupation with the transitory and the fleeting returns to the question of language, even if it is a more subtle probing of how the arbitrary meaning of words defines human culture. The speaker in ‘Montréal’ studies the airport Arrivals Board and watches as

Montreal collapses into London and returns
as Montréal;
as if the French passed through
a fording of English to find itself more French.


July 14, 2008

The Weeping Woman: Review of Deborah Miranda and Pascale Petit

Book front cover
Title:
The Zen of La Llorona / The Huntress
Rating:
5 out of 5 stars

Deborah Miranda. The Zen of La Llorona. Cambridge: Salt. £8.99
Pascale Petit. The Huntress. Bridgend: Seren. £7.99

The Mexican folktale of La Llorona, sometimes known as the ‘weeping woman’ tells a story of infanticide as a lineage of violence is passed down from the conquering Spanish conquistador to the oppressed Mexican woman who must father his child. The power of this story filters into two new poetry collections: Deborah Miranda’s The Zen of La Llorona and Pascale Petit’s The Huntress.

The Zen of La Llorona begins in the voice of La Llorona’s child. In ‘Three Months Without Electricity’, the daughter struggles to understand her mother’s coldness:

In the warm water, I am first a fish,
then a dark seal, then a turtle, peering out of my ocean
to see the wax well up, lucid, drench
the burning air of my mother’s silence.

The metrical and alliterative emphases of the first two lines fall on words describing water creatures. Like La Llorona’s drowned infant, the child is intimate with the river and water. The image of wax welling up is ambiguous: does ‘welling up’ evoke an outpouring of tears or does it refer to frozen and repressed feelings? The ambiguity of La Llorona is clear; in murdering her own children she must lack emotion, yet she is the weeping woman. The miscommunication between mother and daughter is clear in the image of blistering silence.

Later in the collection, Miranda’s view shifts and in ‘Driving Past Suicide for Three Novembers’, the voice is that of La Llorona herself:


When I arrive home tonight
my husband will reach for me in the dark–
his need, his comfort, his right.
Who will tell my children
marriage is more
than a glistening soul
served up on a silver platter?

The conversational tone of delivery is disarming as it builds to a final image of appetite and consumption. In a style dominated by monosyllabic words and avoiding regular meter, Miranda describes the horror of the marriage matter-of-factly. This angle views La Llorona from a different perspective. Miranda admits that a legacy of suffering can emerge in the relationship with one’s children, because pain is distancing and difficult to explain.

The Zen of La Llorona maps a journey through suffering towards understanding, yet it deals with not only women’s pain, but with the distress of all outsiders. In ‘After San Quentin’, Miranda discusses her family name and the Spanish language:


In Spain it used to mean looking.
Here, Miranda means you have the right
to remain silent…
it means
our own words can and will
be used against us; it means
a court of law is not surprised
to find my father, again and again, within its gates…

Miranda’s father wants to retain the difference, the specific name, that links him to his ancestors and roots, yet to have a Spanish-language name in North America is to be defined as a criminal. The irony is that such a pronouncement is self-fulfilling and brutal social judgements create a lineage of suffering to the father and his extended family.

The idea of lineage is also present in Petit’s The Huntress, which juxtaposes colonial violence and gender conflict. Some critics have made the mistake of thinking that Petit’s The Huntress is set amongst the flora and fauna of the Amazon, but, drawing on Aztec myths of blood sacrifice, The Huntress uses a Mexican setting—few realise that Mexico contains its own rainforest.

Reviewers can be forgiven for missing this point, since Petit’s earlier collection, The Zoo Father, was set in the Amazon. Like The Zoo Father, The Huntress represents confrontation with an abusive parent, but here it is the mother. The narrative of La Llorona is at the heart of the collection, as the daughter-narrator uses Aztec mythologies as a means to communicate and understand. The initial reception of Petit’s collection has been somewhat preoccupied by the intense anger directed at the mother. In ‘At the Gate of Secrets’, the narrator tells how she will only be reconciled with her mother in ‘the grave / where we will torment one another’. Yet in other poems, such as ‘The Rattlesnake Mother’, the daughter states, ‘I think now how hard it was for her / to be a rattlesnake’. Petit’s poetry is designed to subvert readers’ expectations about female relationships and there will never be a Hollywood ending with saccharine tears and reconciliation. Sometimes Petit’s subversiveness can seem inflammatory, such as in ‘Portrait of my Mother as Coatlicue’:


Like Cortes, I found her monstrous
and would have preferred
to bury her in the cathedral crypt.

Coatlicue is a monstrous mother-goddess who in Aztec mythology wore a Medusa-like skirt of snakes. The daughter views Coatlicue with anxiety reminiscent of male fears about the female body and sexual appetite. In mentioning Cortez, Petit makes the connection here between the female body and the Orientalist view of other cultures: the ‘exotic’ and ‘sinister’ Aztec temples become the foundations for Roman Catholic cathedrals, just as the female body is appropriated to create a patriarchal lineage. What is so unnerving about this poem is Petit’s positioning of her daughter-narrator as Cortes, the coloniser, and it is problematic to consider where this comparison leads. Yet the narrator relents, stating: ‘But she was my mother, / as much a victim as a devourer.’ As in The Zen of La Llorona, the narrator of The Huntress comes to recognise that her mother’s violence and cruelty are inherited from her own experiences of pain. One of the most powerful poems, ‘Lunettes,’ creates a chain of association that begins with her father’s ‘glasses in the moonlight’ working its way through image after imager, until Petit finds an explicit motif for men’s brutality and women’s pain: ‘a forked iron plate / into which the stock of a field-gun carriage is inserted’.

Kei Miller's The Kingdom of the Empty Bellies

Writing about web page http://www.readysteadybook.com/BookReview.aspx?isbn=0954881125

Book front cover
Title:
Kingdom of Empty Bellies
Author:
Kei Miller
ISBN:
0954881125
Rating:
4 out of 5 stars

I was just long-listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize with Kei Miller, a poet that I have a high opinion of. Here is my review of one of his early collections (published by my friends at the Heaventree Press) which appeared on RSB:

The epigraphs of Kei Miller’s debut collection, The Kingdom of the Empty Bellies, come from the Bible (‘For out of your bellies shall flow rivers of living water’ John 7.38) and from the revolutionary Bob Marley song, ‘Them belly full (but we hungry)’. Throughout the collection, the characters struggle to reconcile the contradictions of church and rum-bar, of religion and suffering, of seeming respectability and revolutionary struggle.

The first section is entitled ‘Church Women’, a sequence reminiscent of Lorna Goodison’s Guinea Women. Like Goodison, Miller creates matriarchs of grand proportions, yet Miller’s poems are not quite so benevolent. ‘Hats’ describes ‘a Sunday museum of felt’ in which ‘a boy will be wedged / between fat women’. Miller describes the boy’s view of ‘stiff circles of mesh’ as being like ‘satellite antennas’. The women’s Sunday headgear, redolent of aspirations and the desire for respectability, orbits the boy’s viewpoint. Miller explains the boy’s distance from the women:


And child-logic being ‘crowns
are chiselled from blocks of gold,
tattooed with ivy vines,
stippled with blue diamonds’,
the boy will not see the majesty
in these women;
he will not understand
their purple claim:

We not God’s children!
We are his wives.


The compound phrase, ‘child-logic’, recalls the ‘child-eye’ of David Dabydeen’s ‘Catching Crabs’ and as in Dabydeen’s poem, a mature narrator looks back on a child’s view of family events and happenings. In Miller’s poem, the young boy cannot envision the grandeur that the women imagine for themselves or their queenly, ‘purple’ desire for the regal. Yet the regret of the narrator’s tone shows a viewpoint that is both critical and loving and Miller reaches towards a reconciliation between the young, critical male and the magnificent mothers.

These poems are always based in the heart of the community and family and Miller reiterates the flawed yet admirable characters that inhabit it. In ‘Aquaphobia’, the mother’s act of teaching her children to swim by throwing them into deep water may seem unkind, but the narrator is adamant that ‘all / these years we have floated on her faith’. These women are heroic and inspiring. For example, ‘Noctiphobia’ tells how Miller’s grandmother was cursed to suffer six miscarriages, but through the ‘curse breaking magic’ of the number seven gave birth to a son. Yet some of Miller’s poems are more acerbic such as ‘This is an apology’ which functions as half-retort, half-lament for a Trinidadian woman whose experience of sex is only the permission of ‘just a few thrusts – / always, always in the darkness’.

If these characters represent the inhabitants of Jamaica, the physical landscape itself is invoked in the surreal vision of ‘In Dream Country’, in which the speaker of the poem becomes an instrument to gauge the strange happenings of an imaginary country. Like the act of creation in Genesis, the poem’s structure describes the formation of a place day by day. On Monday, Miller envisions lions escaping from the zoo, stampeding cows and horses and ‘old West Indian / writers knelt / behind feeble latches’. While the animals are full of life, movement and violence, the writers seem to be strangely passive and vulnerable. Tuesday’s matriarchal cow rejects both its offspring and the virile stallion father, yet V.S. Naipaul appears riding a ‘black lion’ proclaiming the fires that burn for Marley, Selassie and Rastafari. Wednesday is omitted as if something is lacking at the centre of Miller’s act of creation, yet Thursday brings further delights as the animals burn tyres, lament on TV-J and baptise themselves. Friday itself is invoked as ‘an abandoned child’, whose missing parents light ‘a candle for Derek Walcott’, while predatory animals and duppies ‘dance a careless bacchanal’ singing the lack of this chaotic country. The presentation of bizarre, difficult images works as an antidote to poetry’s sometimes careless evocation of place and nation and for this reason it is the pinnacle of Miller’s achievement.

The final section, ‘Rum Bar Stories’ reaches towards more modern inhabitants of Jamaica and it is structured with recipes for cocktails and alcoholic drinks. Each poem offers another story and while the characters here seem to be less bound up with the myth of community, they still have a certain authenticity. ‘Reggae Sunsplash’ is striking as it describes the lament of a barmaid. Watching a jazz singer, she thinks how he creates ‘clean purple notes / out of cancers’ and she sees in him the key to escape:


[He] really knew a place
where ain’t nobody crying
and ain’t nobody worried
and ain’t no men
coming in crusted
with a day’s leftover cement,
calling her whichever name
they chose that day […]

Like the earlier stories of church women, the barmaid has aspirations for an unreachable goal. The initial refrains are musical as they express the place of refuge so desired by the young woman, yet the monosyllabic phrase, ‘no men’, creates a change and the prosaic style that follows reveals how her aspirations conflict with mundane reality: the cement, the men’s demands, her own humiliation.

Lack and emptiness are themes that dominate The Kingdom of the Empty Bellies, yet it is Miller’s self sacrifice, his devotion to the stories of others and his commitment to observing the happenings of the landscape that enable this collection. Referring back to his epigraph from John 7.38, Miller’s role is rather like that of the Holy Ghost creating a wealth of ‘living waters’ out of his own absence. Miller becomes the critical and loving deity of his own imagination, his own culture.


July 17, 2007

Memory and Mourning

Book front cover
Title:
Portrait in Sepia
Author:
Isabel Allende
ISBN:
0007123019
Rating:
Not rated

Portrait in Sepia picks up where Daughter of Fortune left off with Eliza Sommers accepting the apothecary, Tao Chi’en, as her husband after a long quest to find her childhood sweetheart who is lost forever. If Daughter of Fortune is all about the chances taken in youth, Portrait in Sepia is far more regretful manner even while it is told from the point of view of a youthful narrator: Eliza Sommer’s grand-daughter, Aurora del Valle. The narrative of the book revolves around loss, as it maps out Aurora’s mourning for her beautiful dead mother and her missing grandparents, Eliza and Tao, all lost when she was an infant. Similarly, her real father, Matias de Santa Cruz is missing and her adopted father Severo del Valle gives her name and an inheritance but no real relationship. Where as Daughter of Fortune is about the gifts in shrugging off family and belonging, Portrait in Sepia considers the terrible loss when family life is snatched away too soon.

The one anchoring force in Aurora’s life is Paulina de Valle, mother of her real father and aunt to her adopted father, who also appeared as the shrewd businesswoman of Daughter of Fortune. It is Paulina who must take up the task of bringing Aurora up, initially in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of nineteenth century California and later in Chile against a magnificent backdrop of political machinations and war. Cloistered from the world through her grandmother’s riches, Aurora tells the story of this period in history through her own interpretation of the events in the lives of others. For example the description of Severo del Valle’s experience of the War of the Pacific is grotesque, frenzied and gut-wrenching. This capturing of others and their stories encompasses the significance of the title, Portrait in Sepia, which also refers to Aurora’s interest in photography which acts for her as a way of remembering and preserving experience. Aurora is a memory keeper and an inheritor of the family history, which, as she states that she will never have children, stops with her. Where as Daughter of Fortune is about moving outwards to find new chances and new opportunities for life and freedom, Portrait in Sepia is a movement towards home, preservation and history. The novel is also an interesting companion to The House of the Spirits and some of the characters from that book, such as Nivea (Clara’s mother), appear as youthful versions of themselves to remind us of the next stage in Chile’s history. The heroine of The House of the Spirits, Alba, has much in common with Aurora, and they seem to exist as parallel versions of a particular heroine, since both of their names refer to the dawn. Aurora is almost a prototype for Alba, although Aurora has less freedom and Alba experiences more suffering.


June 11, 2007

In Praise of Love

Book front cover
Title:
By the Light of My Father's Smile
Author:
Alice Walker
ISBN:
070434646X
Rating:
Not rated

By The Light of my Father’s Smile is held together by a construct that at first seems artificial initially: a father is looking down on his daughter after his own death.

She was not even aware at the time of my death that she missed me. Poor child. She did not cry at my funeral. She was a stoic spectator. Her heart, she thought, was closed. (3)

As an atheist, I found the idea of an afterlife from which the father was speaking a little disappointing. However it becomes far more interesting when reading on, because we discover that the tradition drawn on is that of the Mexican “Mundo” tribe, the philosophy of which features prominently in this book. On the one hand, the journey of the book is towards the reconciliation of the father and his daughers, Susannah and Magdelena. However the title does not only refer to the relationship of children and parents. It is also about the sublime experience of love-making, since the “Mundo” tribe, describe the sickle moon as a father’s smile blessing the procreative cycles, which allow sexual intercourse to be fruitful. At the beginning of the book, it is clear that sex for the daughters is a transgression and the journey towards reconciliation with the father is also a path towards healing their view of love-making.

In Walker’s vision, a reconciliation of familial and sexual difficulties can only be allowed when the whole family has recounted its narrative and is at peace. For this reason, the narration moves between relatives, who all contribute to the telling of the family story. Flashing back to Susannah’s and Magdelena’s childhood, the family voices tell how the parents are denied funding to study the “Mundo” tribe, ‘a tiny band of mixed-race Blacks and Indians’ due to institutional racism (14). However as a family linked to the black church, the family can become missionaries, in order to live in Mexico and secretly study the “Mundo”. Walker’s novel is ultimately a passing narrative that depicts the hateful atmosphere emerging in an atheist family passing as Christians. The father, named only with the formal title Señor Robinson, describes how he is ‘sucked into the black cloth’ of the priest’s costume and his only relief is secret, transgressive sexual pleasure when making love to his wife Langley (156).

Yet in hiding his own sexual pleasure, Señor Robinson also enforces his rule on his daughters, the uncertain Susannah and the more wayward, Magdelena. From Magdelena to Maggie to Mad Dog to June, Magdelena’s names map her course: from the innocence of childhood; to the adoption of “Mundo” peoples’ values (including a belief in the crazy wisdom of the mad dog); to the repression and domestication of her natural sexual instinct. Magdelena’s story is the most touching, as Walker conjures regret and the acceptance of lost ideals vividly.

Yet the centre of the story is Susannah, who must learn to forgive her sister for inadvertently driving the family apart. In the process of this education, Susannah takes on many mentors: women who have had to fight in a society that frowns on difference. For example, Irene, the Greek dwarf, escapes the confinement of her place in society, while Susannah’s lover, Lily-Pauline, manages to build her own restaurant empire in spite of her experience of rape, a loveless marriage and poverty. In the case of each woman, she is saved by the redemptive qualities of friendship and physical love, which leaves the reader like Susannah ‘peering through the mist of the orgasm itself […] seeking what is essentially beyond it’ (190).


April 13, 2007

Towards a Minor Literature (Article for PN Review)

Book front cover
Title:
Chaotic Angels: Poems in English: Collected Poems
Author:
Gwyneth Lewis
ISBN:
1852247231
Rating:
Not rated

Gwyneth Lewis, Chaotic Angels: Poems in English (Bloodaxe, 2006). £9.95.


Creu gwir in these stones
Fel gwydr horizons
O ffwrnais awen sing.


This untitled poem is Gwyneth Lewis’ most prominent, as it appears in carved letters on the Wales Millenium Centre in Cardiff. The poem is preoccupied with gwir or truth and the difficulty of communicating authentically. The problem of defining place is significant, since stones hold fragile horizons of gwydr (glass). The role of the poet is to melt the transparency of glass or truth in the ffwrnais awen, the furnace of the muse or poetic gift. These themes – communication, home, poetic inspiration – are present in Lewis’ Chaotic Angels: Poems in English, which brings together three collections to create a formidable body of work.

Chaotic Angels covers ten years of Lewis’ writing in English encompassing her early collection Parables and Faxes (1995), the playful Zero Gravity (1998) and the pinnacle of her achievement, Keeping Mum (2003). For the first time, the reader is able to map her journey towards the role that Lewis played as the National Poet of Wales. The book suggests the importance of Lewis’ English-language work, yet she is also a poet of Cymraeg (the Welsh language) who describes bilingualism as a feeling that ‘not everyone understands the whole of your personal speech’. One cannot help wondering why a volume mapping the trajectory of Lewis’ work does not include her poetry in Cymraeg, even if we admit the difficulties of co-operation between publishers. (Barddas publishes Lewis’ poetry in Cymraeg.) Yet this choice would seem to fit with Lewis’ poetics when she writes how remaining within one’s native tongue ‘will only take you so far along the route of your experiential journey’.

In their definition of a minor literature, Delueze and Guattari suggest that in order for a minor culture to represent itself it must subvert a major language by de-territorializing that language and making it their own. Lewis’ style is certainly idiosyncratic in its use of the English language, as she synthesises conversational banter and paradoxical sounding maxims. The form looks orderly on the page often in regular stanzas, yet the line breaks often disrupt a train of thought. The metre works to a tune of its own, part influenced by the rhythms of cynghanedd and part devoted to the colloquial dialects that dominate the South Wales Valleys.

The garrulous gossip of English speakers and the ancient rhythms of Cymraeg are often pitted against one another as in ‘Her End’ where Cymraeg is figured as a dying matriarch:


The end was dreadful. Inside a dam burst
and blood was everywhere. Out of her mouth
came torrents of words, da yw dant
i atal tafod, gogiannau’r Tad
in scarlet flower – yn Abercuawg
yd ganant gogau – the blood was black,
full of filth, a well that amazed
with its vivid idioms – bola’n holi ble mae ’ngheg?

The gossipy tone falls into a fairly regular rhythm, but the placing of ‘everywhere’ in the second line induces a pause to contemplate the profusion of the image, of the blood. The expectant line-break after ‘Out of her mouth’ propels us on to the inclusion of the expunged and bloodied language. The phrases in Cymraeg are emphatic (‘good are the teeth to stop the tongue’), avowed (‘the glories of the Father’) and nostalgic (‘in Abercuawg sing the cuckoos’). In contrast, the English-language is associated with examination, description and fascination and cannot build up a similar rhythm. The more cadenced monosyllabic words are broken up when the English speaker becomes self-conscious about language using the word ‘idioms’. The beat of Cymraeg continues even if the message is confused (‘the stomach asks where the mouth is?’). This juxtaposition sets two languages at odds. The English language maintains distance and detachment, while Welsh is inconsistent, confused and elliptic. It is not that Lewis prefers one language over the other, but she displays the extent to which language defines one’s thoughts and identity. The gwir or ‘truth’ desired by Lewis exists in the fragile relationship between minor and major languages.

Like many Welsh poets, Lewis has an ambivalent relationship to home. In ‘Hedge’, the speaker fails to escape her origins; rather she has only ‘pulled up a country’ which is ‘still round my shoulders, with its tell-tale scent’. Yet Lewis will not be bounded by nationality. To Lewis, ‘voracity is a sign of plenitude’ and Lewis is voracious. From the arid culture of the early sequence, ‘Illinois Idylls’ to the perambulatory poems of ‘Parables and Faxes’, Lewis demands new material for Welsh poetry and this desire propels her into the cosmos in ‘Zero Gravity’. Subtitling the sequence, ‘A Space Requiem’, Lewis confounds the journey of her astronaut cousin into space with the death of her sister-in-law: ‘Out of sight? Out of mind? / On her inward journey / she’s travelled beyond…’ Here Lewis is concerned with the invisible and the unseen. The line-break after ‘beyond’ teases and it is never clear what freedom the unknown will bring. Lewis synthesises the macrocosmic and microcosmic so that a journey into outer space becomes a voyage into inner space, yet the outcome of such an experience is nothingness and silence.

In the preface to Keeping Mum, Lewis writes how ‘wordlessness is usually a clue that something more truthful than our account of the world is being approached’. The summit of Keeping Mum and its poetics of silence is the sequence, ‘Chaotic Angels’, from which this new volume derives its name. Lewis creates a new order of divine beings concerned with the invisible, the minor, the silent. ‘Pagan Angel’ transforms the compact muscle of the heart into ‘a chamber whose broody dead / stage pagan rituals’ while the invisible breath of wind creates an Aeolian Harp from ‘stone lintels, making a tune / about absent bodies’. When the question is asked, ‘Where’s the angel acoustic?’, Lewis must answer enigmatically and elliptically: ‘My dear, the curlew. The quickening rain.’


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