Thomas Tyrrell reviews four new short collections from Parthian Books in this month’s poetry roundup.
The Last Polar Bear on Earth by Rhian Elizabeth
That Lone Ship by Rhys Owain Williams
Salacia by Mari Ellis Dunning
The Way Out by Kate North
These slim volumes of poetry from Parthian make an attractive quartet, with their stark, textured, black-and-white covers. I decided I would go out into Pontcanna Fields and read them in an appropriately poetical fashion, pitching my hammock between two trees, in the same way certain writers always seem to be reading Wordsworth on mountaintops or Sappho on lonely Greek islands. It proved a dicey proposition on a showery and none-too-warm day at the end of August, but getting an occasional brisk drenching during my perusal felt appropriate. As that grand old curmudgeon Geoffrey Hill says, ‘when you enjoy a poem, you say “you are mine and you please me in my current mood.” And the angel of poetry says: “Sod off! Sod off!”’
Rhian Elizabeth’s The Last Polar Bear on Earth is the only collection with a entirely consistent voice, a point underlined by the choice of a different font to the other collections. It covers her diagnosis with MS, motherhood and experiences in the online dating game in direct unpunctuated verse that recalls the Beats. For the student of literature there’s the interest of seeing old themes return in new styles—a pair of poems about the moon may nod to Neil Armstrong, but it wouldn’t take much more than metrical ingenuity to turn them into Elizabethan love sonnets. Rhian’s voice at its best is wry, spare and unsentimental, as when she writes about her illness,
whoever got their heart broken
by damaged sheaths of myelin?
not me i never lost any sleep
over my nerve endings being torched
like letters from old lovers
This is an intense and moving collection that benefits from being read in a single sitting, building conclusively to the final poems. What it doesn’t do is offer any escape from the poet’s immediate circumstances, from her lyric voice; even the title poem, which might seem to promise ursine adventures in an arctic landscape, turns out to be a simile for the author’s cat making her way across her ex-partner’s pillowcase.
That Lone Ship, by Rhys Owain Williams, is another kind of poetry collection altogether, barnacled with haiku, patched up with odd borrowings from reading, memory and the news, full of curious nooks and obsessions. It’s much more a book to be leafed through, for the serendipitous luck of finding a poem that jumps out and speaks to you. I found ‘Bookshop evacuation at the Edinburgh Festival’ to be the most joyous poem in all four collections, with its delightful description of bookshop staff performing Indiana Jones rolls to escape before the canvas comes drifting down.
HUNDREDS BURIED AS
BOOK TENT COLLAPSES
reads the headline of The Times.
Whereas The Sun merrily runs
It’s the elegies which are perhaps the weak link of the book: pious offerings to friends or family, but a little too spare and reticent to give the reader a feeling the precise texture of their absence. The wider, more public mourning in ‘A Minute’s Silence’, describing the pause before a football game, comes through more clearly, and it’s for the vivid description of Swansea and its environs, together with the fine contributions to the poetry of football, that the collection’s worth returning to.
There’s a return to the lyric in Mari Ellis Dunning’s Salacia, but this is the lyric deflected, channelled through obscure histories, folk customs and Roman mythologies. Her poems give voice to ‘Gwen Ellis’, the first woman hanged for witchcraft in Wales, or to ‘Salacia’, a goddess of the sea, married to Neptune. These figures aren’t here simply to retell their stories, but as central points around which images swirl, whirlpool-like, in sometimes baffling profusion. The notes in the back are a useful crutch for those not already keyed in to such material, but often, as in ‘Skin Walking’, the shifting and transformation of images is reward in itself.
You dressed your ears in pearly lobes and cloaked your limbs
in the warm and wolfish pelt of someone whose bones were
not the same shade of ivory as yours.
I found myself in the rigid casing of a crab, salty and unsure,
beachcombing my way through yesterday and tomorrow
and all those spooling minutes in between.
The themes of sexual assault and mental illness run through the verses like dark threads, but in the concluding poems, lyrics for home and country, the tactility of that ‘warm and wolfish pelt’ returns in the mother making cawl, teaching the child ‘to blow on the spoon / to stop the nibbled swede from scalding’. It’s a finely judged collection, balancing the wild and mythic with the homely and familiar.
If the mysteries ofSalacia grow clearer once you realise there are notes in the back, the three terse notes in the back of Kate North’s The Way Out are a joke or misdirection, like T.S. Eliot’s notes to The Waste Land. There’s no help here for readers keen to decipher the strange pictograms in ‘Heart’, to know what exactly the titular process is in ‘The Process’, or precisely why the poet’s liver is invoked as ‘my woman, my courage’. No-one unacquainted with the poet herself is likely to guess that ‘Le Café Mollien, Musée du Louvre’ is a found poem garnered from fragments of different TripAdvisor reviews—and that’s a shame, because that knowledge turns a plain little poem into a delightful satire.
You can sneak a bottle in
on the first floor landing
where staff stand and do nothing
even when you wave at them
a short walk from the Mona Lisa
a pre-packaged disappointment
with a thin slice of meat and cheese.
This kind of reticence leaves many of the poems feeling like riddles or jokes without punchlines, and I found my read-through a somewhat frustrating experience, tempered with delight on the occasions when, like Captain America in The Avengers, I finally got a reference.
All four poets are spiky and surprising, often dark, sometimes funny, and good for the rainy moods as well as the sunny ones. They also sustained the trial of being read in a wet hammock, which is perhaps the greatest compliment I can lavish upon them.
These four collections are available now.