Saturday, July 31, 2021

Respect due

'Viewpoint' finds Ruth Bidgood looking out at a natural landscape that is at once familiar and alien: "from here / we saw it new, aslant, changed / a beauty of questioning and strangeness". The new anthology A Last Respect, in which the poem appears, is a similarly revelatory survey of the literary landscape, one that throws the lofty peaks of Anglo-Welsh poetry into even greater relief.

Titled after a Roland Mathias poem and gathering together a clutch of contemporary poets who have all won the annual prize established in his memory, the book is a fitting tribute to a tireless champion of Welsh writing in English. Equally fitting, it's published by Seren, passionate advocates of English-language writing in Wales for the past four decades.

The inclusion of Rhian Edwards' 'Skype' may be a deliberately topical nod to the pandemic and the disillusioning reality of trying to maintain intimate personal relationships digitally, but generally the subject matter is universal and weighty. The shock of parenthood verges on visceral horror in Ailbhe Darcy's extraordinary pair of poems 'After My Son Was Born'; Owen Sheers and Robert Minhinnick take us into bloody combat on foreign soil; Edwards laments her own physical decline in 'The Unkindness' ("What of this cauliflowering arse, / where are the buttocks that snake-charmed?"); Gwyneth Lewis and Bidgood are haunted by the prospect or reality of losing linguistic faculties in old age ("Words have migrated, / I forget their calls"); and the latter writes ominously of death in 'Porchlight' ("the slow approach / of that which knew her name and habitation / and would not leave without her").

By contrast, Dannie Abse's 'A Marriage' is light relief, a tender portrait of "perdurable love" that sees the poet comically recollecting illicit nocturnal visits to his lover's lodgings, avoiding a ferocious German landlady and her "anti-Semitic" pooch.

"This collection represents some of the best of Welsh poetry in English of this century", ventures Glyn Mathias in the Preface. A bold claim, to be sure, but one that is undoubtedly substantiated by what follows.

(An edited version of this review has been published on the Buzz website.)

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