Gary Raymond reviews a new poetry anthology from Arachne Press that takes as its inspiration the A470, the road that runs from north to south Wales.
One of the first pieces of writing I had published online some fifteen years ago, was for a friend’s web-based project that commissioned and collated non-fiction (probably now to be known as creative non-fiction) that used as its jump off point the stretch of road that forms something of a backbone to the nation of Wales, the A470. I wrote something about the bust of Keir Hardie in Aberdare, which was unveiled in December 2006 to mark the anniversary of the founding of the Labour Party in the UK and mark it in Hardie’s parliamentary constituency. The piece was forgettable (I’d forgotten about it until reading this poetry collection), but the idea of it, and the website it was published on, holds steady. That moments in geography can stand for something bigger and wider than the immediate. That temporal resonance can mean emotional resonance. This anthology, edited fastidiously and bilingually by Sian Northey and Ness Owen, understands the potential for looking outward as well as inward that a stretch of road like the A470 can give us, and how the road gives not just a backbone to Wales, but gives a conceptual one to the poets. It gives the commissioned poets both freedom and security. It gives them the chance to talk about Wales without the edict to talk narrowly about Wales. And the poets, for the most part, rise to the occasion. Many of the poems stick closely to the road, and a number of them remain entombed in a vehicle, but the idea at the heart of this anthology lingers. The A470 acts as inspiration, metaphor, guide, springboard, as well as many other things. The poets are tethered, but they also flutter in the winds.
It is a great shame, then, that the title of the book is so leadenly unpoetic, taking as its focus the letter and digits of the road some soulful figure of authority somewhere at some point would have done better to rename with a more romantic moniker. But it was the A470 fifteen years ago when I was commissioned for that website, and so it remains, angular and bureaucratic, hard on the eye, forgettable on the lips to all but the most passionate Ordnance Survey-ors (and sales reps). But… there is also something ironically seductive about the very coldness of the label, a reference term rather than anything harboruing the slightest hint of affection. That the road, like a dormant giant, has never been given a colloquial name says something itself of the sensibility of the country it runs through. Without any effort, any government promise, any twitter storm, the name of the road that bisects this beautiful land remains resolutely bilingual (or should that be non-lingual? The road name sitting somewhere beyond language, something of a symbol on a cave wall, something beyond Bertrand Russell’s maxim that language is ‘to make possible thoughts which cannot exist without it.’)
Inside the pages there is something disarming about the quietness, the naturalness, with which each poem here is presented in both English and Welsh. Some poets translate themselves, others are translated by the editors, which asks the question, where does the truth of each poem lie? Somewhere on the meridian strip between the two? Somewhere between the languages?
But there’s not much time for lingering with thoughts like that. For a poetry anthology, A470 rattles along at quite a pace. The book is well-sequenced, and it works to be read cover-to-cover, which is rarely a must with books like this. And I don’t mean to hammer home the metaphor offered up by the road itself, but the journey through the book has its ups and downs. Glyn Edwards’ excellent opening poem, ‘The Road Traverses’, suggests an experimental tone for what is to come, but unfortunately, that idea gets swiftly left in the rear-view mirror. It’s wonderful to be introduced to so many Welsh poets I had not read before – great to see the absence of many of the usual names – but after Edwards, A470 does little to upturn expectations in terms of form or concept. For a poetry project, there is an abundance of literal interpretations of the brief. But there are also many gems. The contributions from Rae Howells, Tracey Rhys, Adele Evershed, and Ion Thomas, are ones that stick in the mind long after reading; but aside from that there’s a great deal of driving (WARNING: poets appear to be Wales’ worst drivers), some nationalist teary eyes, and even Blodeuwedd pops up for an obligatory wave of her flowery hand. As I said: ups and downs.
A470: Poems for the Road is available now from Arachne Press.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, critic, and broadcaster, and is editor of Wales Arts Review.