April 13, 2007

Towards a Minor Literature (Article for PN Review)

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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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