A Watchful Astronomy by Paul Deaton is the thoughtful debut poetry collection by this already well-regarded author who has published his work in national magazines like The Spectator, and London Magazine as well as in more literary journals like the PN Review. A Watchful Astronomy has a distinctive flavour. The author is a realist and a formalist, preferring simple, accurate language and use of formal meter. This makes for unusually clear and accessible work. A powerful underlying current of emotion also drives these poems and is contained and restrained by the more austere formal qualities. The book is haunted by the ghost of the author’s father, a figure that appears throughout the collection as an overbearing, even threatening presence, embodied in glowering mountain ranges, in icy blasts of weather, in bits of bleak, monosyllabic dialogue. It is to the author’s credit that grudging admiration for the father’s practical skills (‘Shoemaker Father’), and a profound and lingering sense of compassion overcome what could be obdurate (if understandable) resentment. Nature is also a prime factor and facilitator in this book, both rural and urban scenes are beautifully observed and presented. There is a gift for the visceral here, for tastes and sounds. There is a tendency to describe liminal scenes and moods: dusk, a sleepless hour, a view from a precipice, a changing mood. A rigorous intelligence meets an adept sensitivity in these poems by this already accomplished as well as promising poet.
Alun Lewis (1915-1944), the remarkable poet and story writer, died, aged 28, in Burma during the Second World War. Some critics see him as the last of the great Romantic poets, a twentieth century Keats. Others view him as the bridge between pre-war poets like Auden and Yeats to post-war poets such as Hughes and Gunn. He was born and raised in Depression-struck south Wales and, following degrees in history at Aberystwyth and Manchester, became a teacher there. Early in 1940, despite his pacifist inclinations he enlisted and, after long periods of training, joined the war in India. Becoming a soldier galvanised Lewis’s writing. By 1944 he had written two collections of poems and one of short stories, all published to considerable acclaim. Firmly established with Keith Douglas as the leading writer of the Second World War, Lewis’s death in an accident while on active service was huge loss to English literature. This Collected Poems comprises a body of work which has endured and which transcends the label ‘war poetry’; it is complete in itself and full of promise of greater things.
From the nightmarish first story set in the South China Sea in 1946 to the final piece, set nowhere at the end of time, Brief Lives demonstrates in a short compass a huge range in technique and milieu and a unity of theme and sensibility. It opens naturalistically but is distinctly non-realist by the close. We meet an ex-collier in 1950 anguishing over whether to return to the pit, a young mother in the early 1960s quietly shepherding those around her through a bleak Christmas day, an industrial chemist in this century plunged into vortices of memories that cause him to question his grasp of the world, and more. Meredith’s fiction has been marked by its willingness to push at literary boundaries, and Brief Lives is no exception: it is an intense distillation of Meredith’s abiding concerns to explore how memory shapes the present and the present shapes memory, the interplay between beautifully realised individual lives and the wider historical process, and the paradox of simultaneous human isolation and community.
In Her Shambles is Elizabeth Parker’s first full collection of poems. From the first poem ‘Crockery’, where a potential lover, in surrealist fashion, seems to fragment into reflections on a dinner table, we have a key to this author’s style: verb-rich, active, observational, things-seen-aslant. Poem two gives us more clues: the engaging metaphor of a father as a ‘rescuer’ is played out. Parker likes to regularly burst out of the one-page lyric, and often extends her metaphors over two or more pages. With more ground to cover, she can vary her physics from minute inspections to eagle-eyed overviews. There is a visceral quality to the imagery: we are revealed and celebrated as creatures of the body: of flesh, blood, bone and ‘juices’. In the marvelous ‘Rivers’, family members are assigned their own distinctive bodies of water: “My sister’s brook is root beer with rot/ the dead giving up their tannins/ letting riches from their skins…”. There is a poem where two women on a bus examine and comment upon their aging hands and there is also a long poem, ‘Manus’ that is an intriguing and amusing investigation of the hand and its role in human history.a
The life of the influential Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard has inspired this book of poems by Marianne Burton. Burton, whose debut collection, She Inserts The Key, was nominated for the Forward Prize, has delved closely into the extensive writings both by and about Kierkegaard. She has distilled this knowledge into a sharp, lively and intriguing series of poems, all variations of the 14-line sonnet, written in the first person, so that we seem to hear the voice of the philosopher in all of the moods which characterize the various periods of his life.
Shortlisted for the Fenton Aldeburgh First Collection Prize 2014.
My Family and Other Superheroes introduces a vibrant and unique new voice from Wales. The superheroes in question are a motley crew. Evel Knievel, Sophia Loren, Ian Rush, Marty McFly, a bicycling nun and a recalcitrant hippo – all leap from these pages and jostle for position, alongside valleys mams, dads and bamps, described with great warmth. Other poems focus on the crammed terraces and abandoned high streets where a working-class and Welsh nationalist politics is hammered out. This is a post-industrial valleys upbringing re-imagined through the prism of pop culture and surrealism. If the author’s subjects have something in common with RS Thomas, or even Terry Street-era Douglas Dunn, his technique and approach owe at least as much to contemporary American poets like James Tate and David Wojahn.
The poems in Robert Walton’s Sax Burglar Blues range from vivid memories of childhood, such as ‘Twm Siôn Cati’ where a teacher ‘wiry-haired, fierce-eyed’ brings a fictional villain to life, banging out rhythms with her shoe on the floor of a Cardiff classroom, to memories of a rock‘n’roll influenced youth on the back of the Dusty Springfield night bus, or an archetypal narrative of getting kicked out of a band just before they hit the big time (‘Three Out of Four Original Members’).
John Morris s new book is an investigation into the Clydach murders in South Wales in 1999 in which Mandy Power, her mother and two daughters were battered to death. Dai Morris was tried twice for these cruel murders and finally convicted in 2006. Yet John Morris, a legal specialist, is certain that Dai Morris is innocent.
No fingerprint evidence or DNA connected Morris to the crime; his conviction was based on the lack of a solid alibi, the presence of his gold chain in Powers house and the lies he initially told the police in explanation. Morris has always maintained his innocence and new DNA evidence has emerged, together with evidence of falsification of police documents which supports his claim. His case is currently being investigated by the Criminal Case Review Commission. This is a process which can take years to decide if a case should be referred to a court of appeal. Significantly, previous suspects for the murders include former police officers, one of whom was having a lesbian affair with the victim, Mandy Power. In the period between 1980 and 2010, South Wales Police was notorious for getting false convictions based on fabricated evidence and the Morris case could well be another instance of this.
There is every possibility that the man vilified as a brutal killer across the British tabloid press in this much publicised case, is actually the victim of a monumental miscarriage of justice. The author has corresponded with Morris, studied all available police files and court papers, discussed the case with key witnesses and experts, and examined the evidence; he is convinced that Morris is both innocent, and the victim of a conspiracy to convict him. The brutal murder of an entire family is a horrible event but to compound that with an unsafe conviction shows a disrespect to the victims, to their relatives, to the family of Dai Morris and to the law – and of course the real killer is still out there.
The Glass Aisle moves between rage and stillness, past and present, music and silence. Acclaimed poet Paul Henry’s tenth book includes a moving elegy to displaced workhouse residents, set on a stretch of canal in the Brecon Beacons National Park. In the book’s title poem, a telephone engineer repairs a line that crosses the canal to the site of an old workhouse. Tormented by the voices of former “inmates”, he unwittingly connects the centuries, setting free the Victorian ghosts of poacher John Moonlight, lone parent Mary Thomas, and a host of others who haunt the poem’s present-day walker. The collection is in three parts. In the first section, a thematic poem, ‘The Hesitant Song’, “orchestrates silence” while playing “the sea’s soft pedal” to convey the loss of a mother’s songs. Familiar “visitors” from earlier books: Brown Helen, Catrin Sands et al, haunt poems where the sea and music hold a nineteen-sixties childhood in its place. The book’s closing cadence combines love poems with some raw elegies.
Set during Ceausescu’s last hundred days in power, Patrick McGuinness’s accomplished debut novel explores a world of danger, repression and corruption.
When our narrator, a young English student with a damaged past and an uncertain future, arrives in Bucharest he finds himself in a job he never applied for. With duties that become increasingly ambiguous and precarious, he soon finds himself uncomfortably and often dangerously close to the eye of the storm. He learns, as he goes, the uncertainty of friendships in a surveillance society: friendships that are compromised and riddled with danger and duplicity. He encounters dissidents, party apparatchiks, black-markerteers, diplomats, spies and ordinary Romanians, their lives all intertwined against a background of severe poverty and repression as Europe’s most paranoid regime plays out its bloody endgame.
The socialist state is in stasis, the shops are empty and old Bucharest vanishes daily under the onslaught of Ceausescu’s demolition gangs. Paranoia is pervasive and secret service men lurk in the shadows.
Carrie Etter’s fourth poetry collection focuses on her hometown of Normal, Illinois, in the American Midwest. The Weather in Normal is not a set of straightforward memories but a slowly shifting entity, like a moving storm. The book opens with ‘Night Ode’, a poem set on a single street at night, the protagonist walking and feeling the oppressive summer heat, the humming of cicadas and the various ages she has walked the same road: “sixteen, nineteen, twenty-four, thirty-seven…”. This introduces us to the main themes of memory and recollection, of mature reflections on youthful experiences, of multiple, shifting perspectives.
Way More Than Luck is the vivid debut collection from the well-known young poet and critic Ben Wilkinson. The book opens with a series of poems that, with a remarkable clarity and sympathy, recall a battle with clinical depression: the “days when you weren’t anyone. Days gone undercover…”. The author interrogates this malady: “two-parts sadness, one-part anger”, grapples to understand that its sources are both personal and cultural. It soon emerges that competitive running, which possibly starts as therapy, a means of combat, becomes a way of life, not just for fitness but for the long-haul, for endurance. The poet finds a still, calm centre: “Running is the pure solitude of a wordless hour.”
Jen Jones has written an expanded version of Welsh Quilts, her authoritative guide to the history and art of the quilt in Wales. Kaffe Fassett, the doyenne of textiles, provides a Foreword for this new edition, which also includes a greater number of images of quilt designs – some published for the first time – in a beautifully produced, detailed and generously illustrated book. By the 1970s the unique Welsh traditions of quilt and blanket making were almost extinct. Welsh Quilts is the result of Jen Jones’ researches into the subject and her desire to revive what had been a gloriously high quality craft. As she researched the book Jones also began collecting Welsh quilts, creating an extensive collection which is now housed in the Welsh Quilt Centre in Lampeter. New, high resolution images of the bold designs and intricate stitching of the quilts in her collection are included in the book. Welsh Quilts explores the origins of quilting and blanket making in Wales before considering its peak period between 1870 and the Second World War when wholecloth, frame-made quilts became the standard for which the country was famous. Welsh Quilts contains chapters on the origins and history of the quilt in Wales; Making a Quilt; Methods; Types of Quilt; Joining and Finishing; Provenance; Buying a Welsh Quilt; Caring for Quilts; Blankets; and Types of Blanket. The book also includes a list of public collections of quilts. Welsh Quilts is the essential book on the subject, whether you are a quilter yourself, or simply interested in quilting heritage.