Peter Daniels reviews
by Mike Jenkins
The title is a good one: this book is a blending of space and sound. The spatially open form of the poems on the page seems to identify especially with the open moorland of South Wales where many of the poems take place. Jenkins also gives the sound of the words plenty of work, often with rhymes and rhythms which are less obvious than they might have been because the spread across the page draws the reader’s attention; the subject of music occurs often, too (playing the cello, Fado singing, jazz) but also the sounds of the world around, as on the moors. The title poem presents ‘instruments you cannot construct’, like the ‘hollowed tree / bass body / owl bassoon’ – he is not afraid of making images and parallels for nature out of the human world:
and the sigh
always the sigh
of the oak’s lonely conducting.
(Some of the layout quoted in this review will be inevitably a rough reproduction.) Jenkins is bold with images that transform people and things into other people and things, all through the book but most notably in this subject area of nature and music. ‘To Sing the Common’ takes this to the limit – ‘the sax / once a statue / of a snake’ plays ‘a different tune / for each incarnation’, while a cello becomes a calf and a piano emerges from a mineshaft. His exuberance with imagery runs the usual risks and in some poems there are a few misses.
The images and the words that convey them are held together by the way the poems place words like things on the page, creating spatial relationships. Occasionally this is a meaningful shape, as in ‘Gyre Child’ where the form is a gyre, but mostly they are abstract, following the line of breath and vocal expression. The layout of ‘Fado Singer’ is an expressive notation of the spaciousness as ‘she sails / her ship of song’. This contrasts severely with the least expansive poem, which is placed opposite. It looks and feels limited, as well as being too much of a statement in a limping rhythm:
one million voices harmonising inside his head,
one million brothers and sisters: a requiem of red.
This poem, ‘Komitas’, about an Armenian composer, survivor of the massacres, is followed by ‘The Tears of Pablo Neruda’ and ‘Legacies of Pinochet’, and while it feels like a cliché to say political writing works better with home material, it’s true here. A sequence about Northern Ireland, ‘War Stories’, takes its strength from first-hand observation, while the politics of the past and present of the industrial Valleys, and of Wales as a nation, have a tangible hinterland of experience in the book as a whole. The political passion can then attach to a dramatic moment or an image – ‘every palm a map / of the Valleys’ for the coalminers’ hands. In ‘The Remains’ a man who ‘had once been a physician / for every machine’ is sent on some job-creation scheme to dig up landfill, so that ‘all the industries of his town / he flung onto a skip’, and like a mad cow ‘he had been fed on the remains / of his own kin’.
Sometimes unposed as well as unanswered questions draw energy out of the poems, like the bare evocation of ‘the brooding ghosts / of Dissenters and Chartists / who will not answer my requests’ (‘Flags of Neon’), but some poems contain apparently personal meanings not fully explained which makes them stronger. ‘A Shrine’ gives us the room of a dead woman in a softly spoken poem of pure grief; in ‘Passing’ there is ‘a ghost still living’, and the pain of the encounter comes clearly through our uncertainty about the back story:
father and son
passing where once
he’d pushed me in a pram
not a word exchanged
Seren have obviously had a hard typesetting job, but there is no excuse for clumsiness and carelessness. The main serif font is on the small side, perhaps to fit the poems to the standard page size, but italics (and some non-italics) intrude in a larger heavy sanserif completely unrelated to it. This has to be a mistake rather than a design decision, and part of an overall inattentiveness to detail. With cellos making several appearances, there is inconsistency about whether to give the word an old-fashioned initial apostrophe: when it has one, this is carelessly left as Word’s automatic opening quote, not a proper apostrophe the same way round as a comma. Some page turns nearly spoil whole poems with a false ending, which brings in the question whether the format is appropriate for poems which depend so much on their space.
Here is an example of a busy publishing house having to turn out a regular-size product with a serious effect on the quality and effectiveness of the book. It would have helped to make a tighter choice of poems, for one thing. A bigger format for a more visual-style book would help to make each poem count satisfactorily; or should the poems even have been more tailored to the format of the book? In terms of sales it may seem better for this to be part of Seren’s usual output: to be large enough to make the most of the poems’ layout, it would be hard to fit on shelves. But with good production perhaps that would encourage shops that do stock poetry to display it. Poems need space, and poetry publishers have to be responsible for creating or finding it.