Katrina Naomi reviews
An Elusive State: entering al-chwm by Steve Griffiths;
Flashes and Specks by Elizabeth Ashworth;
Hearing Voices by Ruth Bidgood
and Return to Bayou Lacombe by Jan Villarrubia
Four very different voices from this publisher based in Wales; ranging from visions of Utopia, to poetry of the natural world, to found historical poems, to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Steve Griffith’s An Elusive State: entering al-chwm is intriguing from the start. The reader is guided into the pronounciation of ‘Al-chwm’ but its meaning is unresolved. Griffiths offers an introductory poem before exploring the nature of this state in over 40 poems (including several sequences). He puns on ‘state’, whether this is a state of mind or a state of being, is left for the reader to decide. This is an enjoyable puzzle. I found a great deal of political allegory and philosophy, alongside references to the USA, the Islamic world and Wales. The collection contains mostly short-lined, longer poems and sequences, with a confident tone and good occasional use of slant rhyme. Griffiths enjoys playing with language and perception. I particularly enjoyed the opening lines to ‘Entering al-Chwm’: ‘It began and ended with the barking of tethered dogs,/a hundred street lights for the non-existent carouser,/nobody up who was up to any good/but nobody was up,’.
Every time I felt I was getting to grips with how Griffiths’ Utopia might work, he pushed the meaning further away. This evocative section from ‘Just enough’ is a case in point: ‘Al Chwm’s up/for some kind of prize/but the judges get lost,/it’s too small/like a best kept station/with no line but a platform garden/and there are so many silent tracks.’ Griffiths doesn’t show his hand too early. This is a collection for readers who like to do some of the work - and his fresh imagery adds to the enjoyment of this collection. On the rare occasions where Griffiths spells out the meaning as in ‘Beyond anxiety’: ‘resistance was killjoy/to the seduced/and was exposed to the full panoply/of a military complex.’ the poetry loses its energy. But these moments are few and far between in a thoughtful and seductive book.
Flashes and Specks by Elizabeth Ashworth contains an epigraph from Walt Whitman’s ‘There was a Child Went Forth’. Ashworth’s is a questioning collection; she is interested in light, colour, and what might be. As with Griffiths’ poetry, Ashworth tends to specialize in ‘skinny’ free-verse poems, yet Ashworth’s are mostly grounded in the natural world. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that she inhabits nature in much of her poetry. One of my favourite poems, ‘I Do Not Know What It Is That Is So Welcome To Me’ typifies some of the best of her writing, as with this section: ‘My home in autumn/Where my life ticks/In the frosty kitchen/And the narrow little bed/Whose eye is limpid/Whose pillow is moist/Whose breast thuds at the sky’.
Ashworth’s collection throngs with stars, birds, illumination and occasionally, love. I particularly enjoyed the strong endings of her poems, as in ‘And the true nature of love/Loose in our hands like reins’ from ‘Two Small Animals’. I would also single out for praise the glimpses of violence and disquiet in Ashworth’s poetry in this generally accomplished collection.
Ruth Bidgood’s Hearing Voices consists of found poetry, or poems which are based on found material with some additions. Introducing found poetry, Bidgood explains: ‘Editing is often minimal; sometimes it entails abbreviating, cutting unnecessary repetition; but in a true found poem one should not invent or add.’ A great deal of research has gone into the ‘finding’ of these poems; and they are mostly drawn from letters or other written work of the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries from England and Wales. I consider the found poems to be the most effective and moving, and I particularly enjoyed those that gave voice to women’s and men’s complaints from centures ago, as in ‘1. Dan Parry writes from London’: ‘I will have satisfaction for all my trouble/in running after your business/and spending my moneys.’ These complaints feel curiously modern; the language may be from another era but the issues often resonate today. Here is an excerpt from ‘7. Grievance’ based on a letter from Alice Owen to her parents in 1712 (in which Sidney is Alice’s sister): ‘Methinks you might/have employed your pen in something else/than soliciting for Sidney: in/congratulating me or joining me in prayers/for my safe delivery out of a great rogue’s hand’.
While I enjoyed the poems, they occasionally feel overly prose-like and some of the line breaks seem odd. However, there is much to admire in this original collection. The short sequence of prose poems ‘Bringing Home the Bride’, contain the wonderfully understated ‘The Homecoming’, in which the groom describes the objects of married life and a surprise which awaits, ending with ‘I led her in’.
I have never been to New Orleans or Louisiana but Return to Bayou Lacombe took me straight there. Jan Villarrubia’s opening sequence of ‘Postcards from Katrina’ contains a good deal of powerful writing: ‘The levee broke./It broke open and broke again and again and/Lake Pontchartrain poured forth brine and pesticides that had dripped/from those clean, green lawns. It broke,/over and over, poured into Lake Vista, Lakeview, Village de L’Est, the Lower Ninth./Flowed up Elysian Fields Avenue like something from/One Hundred Years of Solitude or the Bible or both.’ (Postcard No. 1). There are times where the language is a little stale, or the line breaks could have worked harder, but these are far outweighed by the strength of Villarubia’s poetry.
I found the poems about her late parents (to whom the book is dedicated) to be some of the strongest, most evocative poetry in the collection. ‘Father, Hiding’ is a stand out poem: ‘Crouched behind stairs, listening/to the girl with the black hair/sing in the bath./Married her.’ And the title poem ‘Return to Bayou Lacombe’ is extremely moving, while avoiding sentimentality. It opens: ‘My father moves the pirougue easily,/the paddle, like another limb.’ and ends ‘My father was here yesterday,/gliding, winding so gracefully./He has never left this place.’
Katrina Naomi Naomi won the 2008 Templar Poetry Competition and the 2008 Ledbury Festival Text Poem Contest. Her first pamphlet, Lunch at the Elephant & Castle is published by Templar Poetry. She has an MA in Creative and Life Writing at Goldsmiths. She has received a Hawthornden Fellowship for 2009.
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