REVIEW by Vicky MacKenzie

NWR Issue r18

Brood by Rhian Edwards, Translating Mountains by Yvonne Reddick and A White Year by Anna Lewis

Brood by Rhian Edwards
Translating Mountains by Yvonne Reddick
A White Year by Anna Lewis

Each of these pamphlets is tightly themed (on birds, mountains and life in a Late Iron Age village, respectively), but some ideas surface in all three collections: the sudden loss of family members, the indifference of the natural world to human life, and the precariousness of existence.

Brood is an exquisitely produced pamphlet which includes several dynamic charcoal drawings of magpies by Welsh artist Paul Edwards. It’s a fitting title: there’s the sense of ‘brood’ as the offspring hatched from eggs, and as a verb meaning to nurture and protect young. There’s also the sense of ‘brood’ as mediating on something, especially unhappily. All these meanings of the word are at play here, since whilst the obvious theme is avian, the poems also explore pregnancy, child-rearing and the breakup of a marriage. The central sequence, ‘Pied Margot’ (another terms for magpie), follows the folklore saying about magpie numbers, beginning with ‘1. Sorrow’, ‘2. Joy’ and so on, until the heart-wrenching ‘10. A Bird That’s Best to Miss’ which details the pain and distress of miscarriage, ‘the silt of near life’.

Edwards relishes mixing registers and tones: red kites are the unexpected ‘flight of false moustaches’ and a pregnancy test kit is the unromantic ‘piss wand harbinger’. Rather than accepting her partner’s ex-fiancée’s diamond, the poet wishes she had accepted a proposal ‘with the regalia of a Coke ring.’ Her imagery is never less than fresh and witty, and this pamphlet dazzles with wit, honesty and linguistic verve.

Yvonne Reddick won the 2016 Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Competition which was judged by Seren editor Amy Wack; part of the prize is publication by Seren. Translating Mountains focuses on hillwalking, mostly in Scotland, and the pamphlet is dedicated to the memory of the poet’s father, an experienced hillwalker who died in the Scottish mountains in 2015. The poet’s grief is palpable and it’s impossible to read this collection without being moved, particularly when Reddick lists the items returned to the family after his death:

…a map, still legible
despite the bleeding ink.

A sealed survival bag.
His damp wool hat and gloves.

The collection is peppered with the Gaelic names for the hills which for the poet seem to form a litany, particularly in the title poem where she scatters her father’s ashes in the hills:

the rain will seep through you,
mingle you with Aonach Bàn,
Loch Teimheil, Sìdh Chailleann.

Birds feature here too. In the poem ‘Howlet’ (a Scottish word for owl or owlet) the narrator’s father has nailed an owl box to a chestnut tree, but after his death the owl abandons it, preferring ‘a twiggy mess / on the chimney pot over the cold hearth.’ Life goes on around the family, indifferent to their anguish.

Anna Lewis’s pamphlet, A White Year, follows a year in the life of a young boy in a Late Iron Age village on the Somerset Levels, coping with the death of his sister and the climatic changes which are threatening the village’s very existence. Lewis wrote this sequence at the same time that the area flooded in 2013-14, but even without knowing this it’s hard not to read the collection without keeping in mind our own environmental catastrophes, both current and impending.

Lewis is the most lyric and musical of the three poets here, and almost every line contains an original and vivid expression, such as the unforgettable stanza where the siblings find snails ‘hunkered on the palings’ and twist their fingers up into their ‘gluey dark’.

Birds flutter through many of the poems, the boy always sensitive to the creatures around him. A blackbird rebuilds an old nest and keeps a careful eye on her human companion:

Again and again she returns:
her blades and her hinges, the sparks of her eyes
which see me and fix me, each of my angles
and corners measured and matched.

The collection is permeated with liquid – the lake beside the village, the dark peatland around it, and the endless rain: ‘bright pips of water tag the eaves / and, each in time, let go.’

The land here is ‘two parts black soil to one part black water’. Water even seems to be the cause of the narrator’s sister’s death: ‘cloud gathered weight inside her lungs.’ The back page of the pamphlet informs us that floodwaters eventually caused the desertion of the village, and the collection ends: ‘I sit quiet in the moss, / watch rain widen on the lake.’

All three poets emphasise the ephemeralness of our lives and the way that, whilst the natural world both sustains and fascinates us, we cannot take it for granted. Our place in the world is not secure, not as individuals nor as a species. What can we do but look around us, live with care, and love one another?

Vicky Mackenzie lives in Fife and is writing a novel on Ruskin.


previous review: David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet
next review: No Man's Land


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