The History of Wales in Twelve PoemsGenres: Poetry
, Non-fiction Pages:
Down the centuries, poets have provided Wales with a window onto its own distinctive world. This book gives a sense of the view seen through that special window in twelve illustrated poems, each bringing very different periods and aspects of the Welsh past into focus. Together, they give the flavour of a poetic tradition, both ancient and modern, in the Welsh language and in English, that is internationally renowned for its distinction and continuing vibrancy.
M. Wynn Thomas’ history of Wales in twelve poems taps into one of my favourite genres: giving a history of a time or place through objects or similar, using them as a window to look around at their context and what produced them, how they fit into it. It’s a pretty brief volume, presenting each poem alongside its translation (where necessary, since they’re not all in Welsh), and adding in the art of Ruth Jên Evans for illustration.
The art is all black and white, with thick lines — it’s pretty striking. The choice of poems is something I’d find difficult to comment on, but Thomas’ notes on each use them exactly as I’d hope, giving something of their context and trying to unlock what they say about Wales (sometimes intentionally, sometimes as a side-effect of the poet’s main intent).
I enjoyed it, though I wouldn’t view it as a full history or as having a very strong sense of continuity from poem to poem — it’s more like twelve poems were chosen as little windows to illuminate a topic of interest, rather than them showing a consistent line of developing a theme (though they are given in chronological order).
The Beautiful Librarians, Sean O’Brien
I’ll confess… I didn’t get it. I picked this fairly randomly from the library’s selection of poetry, because I had a reading bingo prompt for a poetry book, and I wanted to give something new a try. It’s been a while since I’ve read poetry, so I’ll admit I’m out of practice. Nonetheless, it was hard to follow these through to the end, to get past the images and clever rhymes and half-rhymes and structures to see what he was ever trying to say.
In the end, I’m not sure I ever actually got anything out of any of these, beyond some very brief sense-impressions (several of them disgusting). There were a few funny lines and a few images I liked (“the compass gathered like a rose/into its bud” — clever!)… but overall, it just wasn’t for me at all.
Cold Night Lullaby, Colin MacKay
Flashback Friday from 25th December, 2009
I asked for Colin Mackay’s Cold Night Lullaby for Christmas 2009 because of Karine Polwart’s song, ‘Waterlily’. It’s a beautiful song, and one that has been known to make me cry — based on Colin Mackay’s writing about his experiences in Bosnia, about the woman he loved, Svetlana. I couldn’t tell you about the really technical merits of the poetry right now, but the images are so vivid, searing. I doubt I can ever, ever listen to ‘Waterlily’ again without crying. Especially when I know what Colin Mackay went on to do — how he killed himself, so very, very methodically.
Reading around a little, I can see that there are some questions about geography/chronology in these poems. I wouldn’t be surprised by some fictionality, or inaccuracy due to how confusing and bewildering living through something like that can be, how destroying, but I think that Colin Mackay probably believed every word he wrote — and that’s what matters.
Poems: Three Series, Emily Dickinson
I read these poems via Serial Reader, which actually turned out to be a good way to make sure I really paid attention. Sometimes, if I try to read a book of poetry at a single sitting, I find that they start to just blur past me. This way, I had more concentration for each individual poem, which helped me appreciate them more. Emily Dickinson isn’t my favourite poet, and I really wanted to give her work a chance.
I did enjoy some of these poems, but for me the regularity of the poems is a downside. I do enjoy highly structured poetry at times — I love villanelles, for example! — but with a simple form and those constant rhyming couplets, it felt almost trite to me. Possibly because Dickinson’s poetry is quoted a lot, but even the ones I didn’t know at all… I don’t know, simple a/b/a/b rhyme schemes really bore me. Alas.
This week’s theme is ‘Top Ten Underrated Books’ — books with less than 2,000 ratings on Goodreads. Some of these only have a handful of ratings, though some are more popular; I tried to pick a range, because if I just picked the most underrated books it’d all be Welsh fiction, and y’all probably wouldn’t be that interested. (But if you are, go forth and read Kate Roberts, Rhys Davies, Menna Gallie, Margiad Evans…)
- The Man Who Went into the West, Byron Rogers. A biography of R.S. Thomas, this was a lovely mix of fact and rather chatty character portrait: it makes R.S. Thomas come alive, as a man of contradictions and contrasts.
- The Hidden Landscape, Richard Fortey. Or any of Fortey’s books, really; something about his style made even geology fascinating to me, and I’m not actually that interested in geology. There’s a poetry to the landscape and the long shaping of it which Fortey sees and communicates very clearly.
- Cold Night Lullaby, Colin Mackay. Only read this collection of poetry if you want your heart to be ripped from your chest. It covers the poet’s experiences in Sarajevo as an aid worker, and inspired Karine Polwart’s song ‘Waterlily’. The video here includes Polwart’s introduction to Mackay’s life and work.
- Dead Man’s Embers, Mari Strachan. Painful in a different way, this book follows the recovery of a man returned to his Welsh village after the Great War. There’s a touch of magic realism, but the emotional heart of the story is very real.
- A Sorcerer’s Treason, Sarah Zettel. I haven’t read this in ages, and in fact need to reread it, but I remember it very fondly — and remember passing it round to various friends and relations, hence why my partner has a stack of this series tempting me to reread now…
- A Taste of Blood Wine, Freda Warrington. I really didn’t expect to fall so in love with a gothic vampire romance, but it’s so unapologetic about examining the effects of the vampires and the way they choose to live on the people around them that I fell for it all the same. I think fans of Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books would probably be a good fit.
- Iron and Gold, Hilda Vaughan. A classic fairytale situation, in a Welsh setting; it humanises the fairytale, making the pain of it really hit you, while also examining human relationships and how they work.
- The Complete Brandstetter, Joseph Hansen. I’ve been amazed at how little I’ve ever heard about these books since my housemate wrote a dissertation on gay detectives in crime fiction. It deals with so many issues — AIDs, racial issues, homophobia, and beyond that into aging, relationships in general… and also delivers solid story after solid story.
- Exiled From Camelot, Cherith Baldry. I read this for my own dissertation, which probably accounts for how fond I am of it. It’s not perfect, but the bond between Arthur and Kay is painfully real (and something often neglected in other modern fiction). It’s also an interesting mixture of materials, with stuff straight from both the Welsh sources and the much later Continental tradition.
- The Fox’s Tower, and Other Tales, Yoon Ha Lee. I love microfiction, and this is one of the few collections I can think of which I would fairly whole-heartedly recommend. Yoon Ha Lee gets the art of the really short story.
I’ll be interested to see what other people have picked out this week — especially if you talk a bit about why. Link me!
The Bread We Eat in Dreams, Catherynne M. Valente
If you’re a fan of Catherynne M. Valente’s work, then you probably know what to expect: prose that touches poetry at times, often an influence of Japanese folklore, strange dream-like logic… This is a wide-ranging collection which includes some stories I read elsewhere, or could’ve read elsewhere, like the Fairyland novella about Mallow. The writing is generally beautiful; that’s never really something I doubt with Valente. The choice of stories is also generally good, even though I have encountered some of them in multiple other collections.
It’s probably most worthwhile for the pretty cover and for people who either haven’t read much Valente and want a sampler, or people who read everything she writes and don’t want to miss anything.
Confession: I mostly skipped the actual poetry. I prefer the lyricism of Valente’s prose to anything about her poetry.
Hybrids of Plants and of Ghosts, Jorie Graham
A somewhat random choice from Blloon’s catalogue. Some of this poetry is lovely — some just didn’t make an impression on me, but there are some gorgeous images, ways of tilting the world askew and looking at it anew, haunting ones…
I think unfortunately my overall reaction is of ambivalence, but things stick in my head — “The starlings keep trying / to thread the eyes / of steeples.” And looking at other reviews, it sounds like this was a first collection, and that perhaps I should’ve come across Jorie Graham before. I might look for more of her work, mostly for the language rather than the content.
The Melancholy of Mechagirl, Catherynne M. Valente
The Melancholy of Mechagirl is a selection of Valente’s stories and poetry. As usual with Valente, I have the problem that I love her writing, but not always the substance. The poetry was too busy being strings of pretty words that I didn’t really get the sense out of it; some of the short stories felt so ornate they felt like they were more for show than to really be handled. I know this is my preference here — other people dig through Valente’s prose happily — and I even like it because of that ornateness, in some ways. If I want to see someone being magical with words, I’ll open up one of Valente’s books and find it.
That’s not to say that she’s bad at characters and plot, per se. These stories often draw on folklore, particularly Japanese folklore, and collected like this it’s also apparent that they’re deeply rooted in Valente’s own life, as well. Her time in Japan affected her deeply, and every story holds its footprints. Some of these are really cleverly done, and for plot, ‘Silently and Very Fast’ is great. I love her story of an AI slowly learning about the world, the family and the AI wrapped around each other. Elefsis works as a character, and that ending works really well.
Finally, the title definitely captures the predominant feeling of this collection. ‘Melancholy.’ That’s not to say it’s depressing to read, but it definitely feels written in the minor key (if you’ll let me mix my metaphors).
Hand in Hand, ed. Carol Ann Duffy
This is a very interesting idea for an anthology, pairing up contemporary writers with an opposite-sex poet of their choice. The poems don’t seem to be necessarily related, though some are; it’s just a collection of poems that spoke to different people, and what different people have to say about love. As with most anthology situations, there are some gems here and some I couldn’t care less about.
As you might expect, I liked the contributions or inclusions of poets I’m already a fan of: Simon Armitage, Pablo Neruda, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Duffy herself. I was more bewildered by the proliferation of Robert Burns, whose work I’ve never really been attracted by, and the absence of Shakespeare. Overall, those surprises make the anthology a more interesting one: it’s not whatever stereotype you might conjure for an anthology of love poetry, but something different: a conversation about love, in many different forms, moods and tenses.
Darwin: A Life in Poems, Ruth Padel
Darwin: A Life in Poems is an interesting endeavour, though it doesn’t quite work for me. Bits of Darwin’s words, descriptions of his life, little details — it makes for an interesting collection for its own sake, but the poetry mostly doesn’t read right. Some of the detail plucked from Darwin’s letters and work is interesting, some bits of it work startlingly well, but as a whole, it’s not a project that works for me.
A sort-of similar project making music around Darwin’s life worked much better for me — Karine Polwart’s song can bring tears to my eyes in the right mood. The Darwin Song Project is worth checking out, though their site now seems to be defunct. You can at least find Karine’s song on youtube.