Lime & Winter by Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch

Lime & Winter was written during a residency at the National Wool Museum in Drefach Felindre in south-west Wales, where Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch explored the lives of mill workers in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The image of shuttles and looms, the spinning, dyeing and weaving of wool, is not exactly a decision-maker when it comes to choosing which pamphlets to read this year, and the fact that this was always going to be a challenging pamphlet for the poet in terms of originality might have irreversibly made for a disaster of a collection. Already the reader is facing the question, how can these poems deliver the subject matter without being obvious, tedious or both? But Wynne-Rhydderch is not just good with words; the author of Not in These Shoes and Banjo knows how good poems are structured, what to include, what gems to leave out.

Regarding the museum, she has talked about there being ‘things I would never have come across had I not spent a period of months there, rather than just zipping in and out for the day.’ She was lucky enough to have access to the attics in which ‘There are poems and little birds drawn by the wool sorters who worked there years ago. I would never have encountered these if I hadn’t allowed myself to be surprised by the environment.’ Our surprise, as readers, is not found in the attic but in the poems which resulted from the poet’s visits there.

These poems carry a grace and exploration which overcomes the awkwardness of not being set predominantly in the centuries Wynne-Rhydderch explores. ‘Heirloom’ is a poem addressed to a loom, specifically the one used by her grandpa. In ‘Winter’, a woman spends the dreary days cooped up indoors, avoiding her lover, who is still an ever-present in the village, and is determined to be ‘forced’ to focus ‘on the needle of my grandmother’s/ sewing machine’, a distraction from her female neighbours who, she suspects, have stolen her former lover’s heart. Even the sewing machine up for auction in ‘Singer’ reminds the narrator of someone’s father. In choosing to set the poems in the present day, Wynne-Rhydderch has created this potential of distance, but we can relate to the people in these poems in other ways.

In ‘String Theory’, the closest we get to physical machinery is ‘Kissing the shuttle your mother would/ suck the thread through until one day/ she choked on its fibres.’ Elsewhere, the poem connects us with sewing via blatant phrases, such as ‘you will not be/ dyed in the wool’ and ‘spin out this hour/ forever’. More subtle are individual word choices: unravelling, mee-maw, reel.

In the auction room in ‘Singer’, among the ‘possessions/of the recently bereaved’:

 
The armshaft
                          and faceplate and long beak shuttle
of an old Singer sewing machine
                                                                           cut me up.

With Singer and Clydebank mentioned later in the same stanza, a poem about the strike of 1911, at the largest factory of Singer, where 400 members of the strike force were eventually fired, a number which included Arthur MacManus, is the obvious direction the poem should take. Nothing wrong with plumping for a different option, of course, but the result, though personal and believable, seems detached from the rest of the poem.

We might know what to expect when reading these poems, but the content varies, more so than Gillian Clarke’s Nine Green Gardens, a collection which sets out its stall and supplies only what the name of the stall suggests.

The diet of silverfish (or fish moth; so called because of the wingless insect’s wriggling motion and general fish-like appearance) and Guernsey Carpet Beetles is ‘Diet’s sole connection to sewing, as Axminsters (a type of carpet with a soft, colorful cut pile usually arranged in a complex pattern, named after the town of Axminster, in southwestern England, where it was first made by hand) and wool are devoured. A personal connection is fitted on to the end, after:

 …Take the Common Booklouse for example,
it’ll devour each page of a stray novel until alone with the title, then chew
its way through the covers, savouring every word.

This couplet-constructed poem is not bad, but the content is much more fleshed out in Galway Kinnell’s poem ‘Why Regret?’:

Didn’t you almost shiver, hearing book lice
clicking their sexual dissonance inside an old
Webster’s New International, perhaps having just
eaten out of it izle, xyster, and thalassacon?

Both poems are essentially list poems, with the focus on animals, or insects, but the direction each poem takes is different enough for readers to enjoy both.
Elsewhere in Lime & Winter, during a funeral, in ‘Mourning Norms’, one mourner harks back to Victorian days where ‘dyers doubled their income sinking crinolines into vats of black/ so ladies in reduced circumstances could keep up/ with mourning norms’, though her attempt to justify her affair with the man who has since died by introducing this harking back with the comment ‘besides we all have things to hide’ comes across as a weak argument.

‘Madder’ is set in an Asylum, in 1854, in which madder is added to sloe gin and prescribed to ‘anyone still howling’. Madder, or rose madder, is a dye. Cloth dyed with madder root dye was found in the tomb of the Pharaoh Tutankhamun. As recipes of a lake pigment from madder was developed by the Ancient Egyptians, the ideal colour was thought to come from plants around two-years-old that had been grown in calcareous soil, which is full of lime.

The final poem of the pamphlet, ‘Lemon & Lime’, goes from Italy to Wales to Scotland, though the connection is hard to find. But the connection of sewing machine and mill worker and present day observer throughout the collection is closer to the eye and easy to enjoy. A full collection on this subject would have been unbearable, but these eight poems are about right.

Rhyme is restricted to trees/at least, dust/husks, bereaved/greed, and rhymes within the lines, forever/father, stutter/clatter, and midline-with-endline rhymes, rules/choose, prayed/stayed. The few blatant rhymes are inconsistent and stand out a mile, such as track/pact, which would usually be a treat for the ears but in a poem which has already faltered is more like a doorbell which is a bit too loud, and flight/kite, intrusive because they begin a poem which immediately stops rhyming, and because ‘heights’ appears just a few lines on, leaving the reader with a jarring sensation.

The absence of gimmicky sewing machine-like sounds is a plus, but to set the whole pamphlet back a century or two would have really added to the atmosphere. There is enough of an atmosphere in Lime & Winter to make the reader get out the sewing kit and get some gloves and hats ready. For a boiling hot summer. But not enough of one to get people who have never sewed before really desperate for a needle and thread.