REVIEW by Sam Needs

NWR Issue 97

Clueless Dogs/White Walls

by Rhian Edwards/Herbert Williams

Both Rhian Edwards and Herbert Williams are certainly confident poets. Both share the characteristics which Mike Jenkins’ blurb on White Walls attributes to Williams’ work: ‘candour and dark humour’. In Williams’ collection, this darkness manifests itself in pieces like ‘Religiously’ or the sardonic ‘War Photographer’, but is at its sweetest in ‘Butterflies’: the description of the titular creatures ‘twitching their fingers like bats’ is begging to be voiced.

Williams has five decades of published work behind him, and yet there are points in this collection where his work actually seems too assured. Though he frequently plays with line and stanza lengths and the poems don’t often look the same, many still feel so; pieces such as ‘Ghosts’ and ‘Edge of the World’ simply blend into each other despite being many pages apart. Death, as Jenkins notes, is omnipresent. It is understandable, but White Walls feels somewhat diluted by the repetition of this theme and the number of pieces carrying an almost stifling insistence on their meaning. In the semi-titular, opening poem, ‘White’, this is almost certainly the intent, but fifty poems later it may well wear the reader down. Poems such as ‘Alltlwyd’ and ‘Madam Death’ are among the strongest poems in the collection; here, Williams allows the reader some respite and himself some freedom from the certainties of meaning and denouements.

Curiously, in the forebodingly abrupt conclusion of ‘Madam Death’, there is the promise of something more to Williams’ poetry:

And all the time
her visits get more frequent

and closer still
to home

until at last[.]

Edwards establishes her own dark humour early on in fine pieces such as ‘Parents Evening’ and ‘Life Boat’ and it carries through to the end of Clueless Dogs with ‘Girl Meats Boy’ and the wonderful ‘Pest Controller’. She comes alive in poems like ‘Tiptoe’ which, like Williams’ ‘Butterflies’, is anxious to be read aloud:

For you may tear this infrastructure,
this composure cannot flounder
armed with the toughness of magnolia,
the cold robustness of a character
that seems to make and merit me
as my mother’s God-damned daughter.

Edwards is known for performing her poetry and I was eager to hear how her Bridgend accent would bend these half rhymes. I was not disappointed after seeing her perform the poem (alas, only via YouTube). In no way is the ‘ephemera of affection’ she describes in the early lines confined to the page and what is, perhaps, most interesting is that I felt myself compelled to return and actually re-read ‘Tiptoe’ after hearing it on the stage.

It’s exciting to see how easily Edwards dismantled the supposed division between performed and on-page poetry in a recent interview with Write Out Loud. I was surprised to see her confess in the same article that she still gets nervous before going on stage (even after winning the John Tripp award for Spoken Poetry last year with a performance of ‘Girl Meats Boy’), but even more so by her admission that ‘it was great validation to discover my poems actually worked on the page regardless of me being a good reader, when Seren accepted my unsolicited manuscript having never heard of me and basing their decision solely on the poems’ merits.’

Reading Clueless Dogs, the merits of the poems are obvious; it is clear that Edwards’ confidence as a performer is an extension of her confidence in writing. Though hearing them performed would no doubt elevate many of the poems even further, there is never the sense that, having missed the performance, we are missing something in the text. Poems such as ‘No Place’ and even the chatty ‘Going Back for Light’, for example, are far from alone in seeming both perfectly controlled and content upon the page.

I’m still eager to hear Edwards’ accent handle the lines ‘We slid on the sediment/of wet currency’ from ‘The Petrifying Well’. Reading this collection will very likely make you want to hear her perform –– and hopefully, hearing her do so will send you back into the book itself. It’s an extremely interesting collection from a relatively new poet, and while Clueless Dogs, despite its nomination, did not win the recently announced Forward Best First Collection prize, this is hardly likely to stall Edwards’ promising career. I look forward to future poems, collections and performances which may feed into each other and continue to elevate Edwards’ writing beyond the page.

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previous review: Lung Jazz: Young British Poets for Oxfam
next review: This September Sun


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