Ben Stainton reviews
At a time when contemporary poetry seems to be leaning towards the anti-lyrical, the anti-personal, the irony-heavy and the ‘shrugging’ (to use Jack Underwood’s description), Rhian Edwards’ debut collection – autobiographical, image-laden, crafted and musical – takes its cues from more traditional sources. This is a poetry of the expected, inasmuch as it does what poems are ‘supposed to do’ – speak about the writer’s firsthand (quirky, affecting, disturbing) experiences in a relatively uncomplicated, feelingly anecdotal way. No bad thing for those who require or admire such qualities in poetry; and this approach is sometimes telling. The absolute clarity of ‘Parents’ Evening’, for example, offers up some attractive lines and even the weaker-seeming units function in the abbreviated manner of a school report –
She has failed to grasp the planets…
has proven violent in games…
has learned to darn starfish
As an opening indicator of the autobiography to come, this works well – there is humour, familiarity allowing a subtle collusion with the reader, and a blackly comic denouement – (she) ‘insists upon your death / as the conclusion to all her stories.’
The trouble with this kind of biographical re-rendering though, is that the poet has to make us care, as readers, about the time a bird hatched in their airing cupboard (‘The Hatching’), or ‘the school holiday we played knock-a-door-run…’ (‘Camposuil’). Luckily, Edwards’ arsenal of charming anecdotes is substantial – the childhood / adolescent pieces are likeable, down-to-earth, and stocked with immediately striking imagery, and as we progress from adolescence through deep-seated angst (‘Unmentionable’) and the melancholy of rediscovering a childhood toy –
you are… moribund,
a Rosebud, a relic
put out to pasture, living
proof we were once something else
Edwards cleverly encourages empathy and identification by dealing with familiar subjects – teenage jealousies, one-night-stands, dissatisfaction at work (the excellent, ambiguous ‘Alison’) – allowing herself some linguistic breathing space in the process. Metaphors bob up and down; obliquity creeps in.
In its second half, the book’s speaker is embroiled in domestic, sometimes bleak situations; extra-marital affairs, drunkenness, and the language understandably takes a darker, less ebullient turn. The feeling remains of reality reflecting back at us, as if these are experiences the poet needed to slough off or unburden herself from – not quite confessional in the fevered sense of Plath or Sexton, they nonetheless occasionally take on the manner of well-crafted therapy sessions; enjoying improbable metaphors – ‘the house turned against you… / pushed you down the stairs, / stabbed you in the hand’ (‘The Good Hand’), cute reversals – ‘pick-pocketing five more minutes / from a clock that rolls its eye’ (‘Quotidian’) and witty half-rhymes –
Looking me dizzy
licking me drunk
in the face of our nudity
I am not nearly naked enough
Edwards’ register shifts impressively when she casts her eye around her hometown for characters. ‘Going Back for Light’, an anomaly within the collection, is an earthy, entirely convincing portrait of ‘Danny’ who ‘got blacklisted at the colliery for making ructions’. Semi-prose, half-affectionate and almost satirical, it contains something rich of the world the poet once inhabited. Similarly, in the concluding ‘Girl Meats Boy’ (winner of the John Tripp Award, 2011), the voice abruptly becomes huge and essential; the language overflowing with an inventiveness reminiscent of Dylan Thomas but also entirely her own; as if a tap has been trickling in secret and is now manically flooding the bathroom. We are reminded, through such energy, pace and playfulness, that this is a poet actually in love with poetry, rather than half-mocking it from the margins. At a time when sincerity and ‘the personal’ are generally viewed as badges of uncool, Clueless Dogs is like two fingers in the face of fashion; proud of its constructions, unselfconscious in the act of remembering.
Ben Stainton’s poems are forthcoming in Coin Opera 2, SSYK (5) and the Bloodaxe anthology Dear World and Everyone in it.