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 Burying the Wren Deryn Rees-Jones returns to familiar preoccupations but with a new clarity and maturity of vision. With intense lyricism she calls on the Roethkean ‘small things’ of the universe — truffles, slugs, trilobites, birds, stones, feathers, flowers, eggs — which, mysterious, and magical as well as ordinary — she sets up against loss. Her sequence of ‘Dogwoman’ poems, which draws on the work of artist Paula Rego, is an extended elegy to her late husband, the poet and critic Michael Murphy. Above all these are poems of the body, “…the blue heartstopping pulse at the wrist”, which are alive to the world and the transformative qualities of love.
The Fauverie of this book is the big-cat house in the Jardin des Plantes zoo. But the word also evokes the Fauves, ‘primitive’ painters who used raw colour straight from the tube. Like The Zoo Father, Petit’s acclaimed second collection, this volume has childhood trauma and a dying father at its heart, while Paris takes centre stage – a city savage as the Amazon, haunted by Aramis the black jaguar and a menagerie of wild animals. Transforming childhood horrors to ultimately mourn a lost parent, Fauverie redeems the darker forces of human nature while celebrating the ferocity and grace of endangered species. Five poems from Fauverie won the 2013 Manchester Poetry Prize and the manuscript in progress was awarded an Arts Council England Grant for the Arts.
Forbidden Lives is a fascinating collection of portraits and discussions that aims to populate LGBT gaps in the history of Wales, a much neglected part of Welsh heritage. In it Norena Shopland reviews the reasons for this neglect while outlining the activity behind the recent growth of the LGBT profile here. She also surveys LGBT people and their activity as far back as Giraldus Cambrensis’ Journey Through Wales in the twelfth century where he reports on ‘bearded women’ and other hermaphrodites. Other subjects include Edward II and Hugh DeSpenser, seventeenth century poet Katherine Philips, the Ladies of Llangollen, Henry Paget, artists Gwen John and Cedric Morris, and actor Cliff Gordon. Shopland also identifies the strong Welsh connections to the exploration of homosexuality and transgender during the twentieth century, highlighting the contributions of John Randell, AE Dyson and Griff Vaughan Williams, and MPs Desmond Donnelly and Leo Abse. They helped to transform social and legal attitudes towards LGBT people across the whole of Britain, particularly in the post-war period, which created the more accepting culture present today. There is still plenty of work to do, as chapters on the responses to Pride in Wales and the first gay play, We All Fall Down, clearly show. But the stories of the people portrayed in this book are less likely to be repeated: the LGBT community has moved from living forbidden lives to a place largely less forbidding. Norena Shopland helps us understand the struggle which achieved these changes.
Ibrahim is a young Muslim guy walking from Cardiff to London. He has his own reasons, and his own mental and physical struggles to deal with along the way. What he hadn t counted on was a chance meeting with 75-year-old East Londoner Reenie before he s hardly started. With her life s luggage in a shopping trolley, complete with an orange tent and her pet cockatiel, Reenie is also walking the M4, and not for charity. As they share a journey their paths stretch out before and behind them into the personal and political turns of European history in ways neither could have foreseen. An impressive and daringly human book from novelist David Llewellyn.
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.
Memories fade but a flame-haired boy remains. May can’t remember where she is or how she got there, but one thing she does know; he’s coming back. The boy. Ned. She has to be ready for him. In Naomi Kruger’s debut novel, it is only by reliving the past that its secrets can be revealed.
In a story that spans five decades, those closest to May revisit the definitive moments of their lives, and in doing so, unintentionally uncover a truth that has haunted May for most of her life. Who was the boy with hair like fire and what happened to him?
For the characters in May, living in the present is almost impossible when the past seems like yesterday and its consequences are far-reaching. Their memories are connected by similar feelings of guilt and regret, and by the growing realisation that they can’t go back. In life, there are no second chances.
A walk through the park reminds Afsana of her estranged family and the things she has sacrificed, a postcard prompts Alex to consider a reality where he travelled the world instead of staying home, Karen attempts to relive a fateful meeting that ended in heartbreak, and Arthur stumbles across a discovery about the woman he once determinedly wooed that makes him an appreciate the present. Years may increase the distance but the past is never very far away, and is easily brought to the surface.
May is a poignant exploration of memory, history and the burden of the past. It is a story that is just as much about the things that stay with us as the things we forget.
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’).
Ideas of separation and divorce are important in Owen Sheers’ eagerly-awaited follow up to his acclaimed debut collection The Blue Book. The geographical divides of borders, the separation of the dead and the living, the movement from childhood to adulthood, the ending of relationships. Such divides are both moments of ‘mark-making’ and moments of absence. In this collection it is often the awareness of such separation – past or impending – and the juxtaposition of these diverse states – that provides the friction from which the poems are born. Skirrid Hill revolves around the two poems ‘Y Gaer’ and ‘The Hillfort’, the titles themselves suggesting the linguistic divide in Wales, from poems concerned with childhood, a Welsh landscape and family, to a more outward looking vision both geographically and historically.
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.
From Copacabana to urban Yorkshire, from New Mexico to a Welsh funfair, from The Netherlands to the Clare coast, Robert Minhinnick’s world is a shrinking one. Its cast of characters includes Rio beach beggars, Madison Avenue literati, saloon-bar poolsters and millionaire scrap merchants. These essays cover a variety of subjects: third world poverty and the internationalism of alcohol, rugby through the eyes of a vegetarian, nuclear power, sunbathing and a thanksgiving dinner for the demise of Margaret Thatcher. But at the core of this collection is a vivid series of attempts to strip away the exhausted mythologies of the writer’s own country and the increasingly-packaged places he visits. Whether in the rainforest or the big match crowd, Minhinnick’s language, acid, imagist, compassionate, celebrates the people he meets and, fleetingly, defines their lives.
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.
Writing Motherhood presents a chorus of voices on the wonders and terrors of motherhood, and the ways that a creative life can be both ignited and/or disrupted by the pressures of raising children. Featuring thought-provoking essays, interviews and poetry by high-profile writers on their experiences of creating art while also engaged in the compelling, exhausting, exhilarating work of motherhood, this important anthology reconsiders the pram in the hallway as explosively nuanced.
Entries include an insightful interview with Pulitzer prize-winning poet Sharon Olds, excerpts from Hollie McNish’s motherhood diary, Carol Ann Duffy’s beautiful portrait of being and having a daughter, and specially commissioned poems by Sinead Morrissey, Rebecca Goss, and many others. Crime fiction fans will enjoy CL Taylor’s witty essay, How Motherhood Turned Me to Crime, and Nuala Ellwood’s heart-wrenching depiction of miscarriage and loss.
By engaging with both the creation of literature by mothers and literary representations of motherhood, the work is a vital exploration of the complexities of contemporary sexual politics, publishing, artistic creation, and 21st-century parenting.