Half-told tales

Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch has become one of the most notable of Wales’s post-1997 cohort of poets. Published now by Picador, her latest volume is Banjo – a collection which Alice Entwistle praised to the heights in summer 2012’s NWR (‘mesmerising’, ‘precision-tooled contents’, ‘beautifully calibrated’ – even ending with a warning of ‘how far short a review like this must fall’ of properly conveying the quality of the work).

It can be interesting with poets who develop into significant figures to recall where they came from. So I thought I’d look again at a few poems from SWR’s first volume, the pamphlet Stranded on Ithaca, which came out from Bradford’s Redbeck Press in 1998.

What’s striking for me is just how strong the techniques are – strong, I mean, in the sense of being strongly apparent. Like a strong flavour. The first few poems manifestly set the tone. ‘Rockclimbing in Silk’ (the opening piece) displays a language that is heavy with descriptives and mots justes: there’s the finger of a castle beckoning ‘jaggedly’; the sea is ‘unconsoled’; the wind is ‘bandaging’ towers; there are seagulls that are ‘disenchanted’ and ‘mim[ing] agony’; and, in the final lines, the air in the throat of the poem’s protagonist is ‘uncertain’. This is language, in other words, that’s marked by a regular reaching for the special word, the linguistic moment that will elevate the tone of the whole above the ordinary. Poetry, if you will, as a counterpoint to linguistic plainness – although done with judicious care, without pushing such a trait to extremes.

But what’s more important, I think, is how this particular poem uses narrative. In his chapter in the 2010 book The Cambridge History of English Poetry, when he is discussing British poetry of the 1980s and early 1990s, Peter Barry suggests that ‘the tricksy, decentred “secret narratives” of James Fenton and Andrew Motion pleased a public which seemed to enjoy a moderate amount of narratological teasing with its poetry’ (p. 970). This draws on Barry’s earlier book, Contemporary British Poetry and the City (2000), in which he describes the ‘secret narrative’ approach as being about ‘the use in poetry of obliquely told, often fragmented and unanchored narratives, emotive but obscure in character’ (p. 135, note 7). ‘Rockclimbing in Silk’ fits this pattern very neatly, with its manifestly unanchored narrative of someone undertaking an unexplained and somewhat unusual activity (the eponymous ‘Rockclimbing in Silk’) which moves to a conclusion that is itself unclear – viz. does the protagonist fall or just give up climbing because of the heat? Narratological teasing indeed: or to put it differently, the poem as slightly tricky, half-told tale.

The pamphlet’s second piece, ‘Pope Gregory XI’s Bedroom’ proceeds along related lines. The language is no less careful, although it’s a bit less concerned with conjuring up recurrently striking words (notwithstanding the bathetic shift of ‘some Italian / jerk’ in the fourth stanza). What the poem offers up in place of this, however, is a sequence of striking images: ‘rhyming wallpaper’ (which still puzzles me); a dome made of ostrich feathers; the fear of choking on quails; eggshells crushed between teeth; a river seen as filled with blood. Poetry, if you will, as dramatic images; a counterpoint, then, to conceptual plainness. The images in this second poem, in other words, are doing the same sort of work that language did in the first.

As for the narrative – well, it wouldn’t do to call it ‘secret’, really. If you don’t know about Pope Gregory XI (last of the Avignon popes), an encyclopaedia will soon sort you out. But what’s vital is that the poem doesn’t do that work for you. Its air of evocative mystery is created by not saying. By giving you fragments of the story (‘that odd Dominican who / writes continually, insisting that he / give it up, come back to Rome’), but not the whole thing. It’s a clever technique: the frisson of a puzzle; the sense that we’re seeing a tale through a glass, darkly.

And the third poem in the pamphlet, ‘One Way Ticket’, does precisely the same thing. There’s a man on a ship, thinking about his troubles – presumably the troubles that have resulted in the ticket of the title. And then, right at the end, we’re told that he still hears ‘the shot’ at Soar-y-Mynydd. Was someone shooting at him? Was there a duel? Was there some feud? Did he hear the shot of someone’s suicide? The point is that the poem doesn’t tell us. It’s all about the half-told tale, the mystery of the not-really-explained event. Even the very precise Welsh reference to Soar-y-Mynydd does the same sort of thing, causing this reader at least to wonder whether there’s a nod to a particular community tale here, a tale drawn from the upland region around the Camddwr valley – but a tale, of course, that this poem is certainly not going to reveal.

I think that much of Stranded on Ithaca owes a great deal to this particular narrative technique. Even the longish title poem, with its grounding reference to the figure of Penelope in The Odyssey, is a narrative puzzle in so many ways. Indeed, that’s a poem for which Peter Barry’s description of ‘secret narratives’ as ‘emotive but obscure in character’ fits the bill pretty much perfectly (perhaps especially for sections II and III.) So when there are poems in which the narrative seems to be fundamentally clear (‘Flavia’s Curtains’, ‘The Ballroom’), the difference comes almost as a shock. ‘The Ballroom’, for example, dramatizes the washing of a paralysed nonagenarian woman by a carer, in the context of a nearby photograph of the same woman when young, in which she is captured ‘in a sepia waltz with some man’. Whilst the half-told tales are very clever creators of atmosphere, ‘The Ballroom’ – in its relative narrative clarity – is a poem that I find much more directly moving. Obviously, that’s an entirely personal response to the difference in technique. But that difference in technique is important for demonstrating, precisely by means of the contrast it creates, one of the primary methods of poetic construction at play in this volume.

There’s much more to say about this undeniably interesting poet, even just in terms of Stranded on Ithaca – her use of vignettes, for example, being another of her approaches to partially rendered narrative; her humour, both on the scale of a complete poem (‘Mona’) and in a playful phrase such as ‘So many men, so little wine’ (‘Stranded on Ithaca’); her rich range of cultural references. But, for me, it is probably those half-told tales which most stand out here: the poet not quite as mystery-maker, but crucially as playing with that-which-is-not-said.

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