Murmur by Menna Elfyn

The most translated of all modern Welsh-language poets, and author of over twenty books of poetry, Menna Elfyn has produced yet another collection which demands respect, a bilingual Poetry Book Society Recommended Translation under the astute eyes of translators such as Gillian Clarke, Elin ap Hywel and Joseph P. Clancy.  This collation appropriately opens with a quotation from Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus:

Murmur to the quiet earth: I flow,
Voice to the running water: I exist.

The softness of Rilke’s words murmurs a rhythm and tone before we even become aware of the unguarded and instinctive manner through which each poem of Elfyn’s will meander. With the unbreakable nature of running water, this collection discerns each pulse of life from the sidelines; it is a river of work that gives way to a stream of pocketed consciousness at the same time as evolving towards a slow acceptance of its inescapable role in such a vista.

At first, it considers loss, gently reeling us towards the water’s edge where we see there will be tragedy in this collection, for there already has been. ‘Ghazal: Loss’ acquaints us with the candid touch of what is to come, then two more opening poems that vestige life’s sequences. In ‘Babysitting in the Crematorium’, the line ‘We were born for the smoke’, embeds the speaker’s unsettled understanding of the unpredictable span before her, and ‘How eternal each second when minding a child’ displays the impossibility of enveloping a moment, the speaker considering the literal body of the vast question, but only ever observing.

Murmur by Menna Elfyn review
by Menna Elfyn
128 pages, Bloodaxe, £9.95

There is a stillness to this collection, but an energy in its interminable discovery as ‘Growth Rings’, with the pun of its very title, calls us into its curiosity and therefore closer to the inevitability of change. Elfyn either means this or the ringing of the bell that ends what become pleasant memories and, later on, nostalgia itself. Here, we can also bear witness to the literal rings of a tree’s divided age, the tragic consequences upon nature whilst failing under nurture of the world’s hand:

See how kids bloom
in the care of trees.
Out of brown and green
grow metaphors:

This illustrates the sad paradox of humans becoming less of themselves with every transition; ‘Out of a cut comes blood’ revealing impending reality as the very danger of innocence. This poem, instead of running into the familiar sanctuary of green metaphor, more uniquely speaks from the roots about how the very imagination, using nature as its base, becomes, as the poem finitely states, ‘things to blunt/our razor minds against.’ Elfyn’s voice is one of experience.

This poem also leads to Elfyn’s preoccupation, as is Rilke’s, with the poetic process, reinforced by her direct acknowledgement of  ‘metaphors’  in poetry never too enwrapped in romantic disguise. ‘The Wasp Inspector’, too, brings home a murmuring of reality, life with its stings, ‘honey or hurt’ for a poet at work as she realises what we sometimes assume to be interference as life itself, the ‘melody’ pushing musical language to its limits.

The sound and fluidity of Elfyn’s poetry work hand in hand, and are most brought to light in ‘Birds of a feather’, exploring the alchemical transformation of writing upon what the addressee does as a ‘coroner/of wayward birds’ and ‘connoisseur of colour’, turning the tangible into a different kind of beautiful. The rhythm of the poem is as steady and plucked as the ‘anatomised’ bird, murmuring music to the ears.

The collection drifts through a trajectory of a well-travelled Welsh writer, but not in location as much as mental expansion. Back home to ‘The Cocklewoman’, we feel the true strength of Elfyn’s ability to tackle all scales of her craft, with a privacy captured as though we are eavesdropping on others’ memories. In this vein, the title poem ‘Murmurs’ brings to mind the importance of murmurs unheard, as the poet attempts to tap into each heartbeat to experience the weight behind such a muscle:

Poets live with beats,
consistently irregular;
lubb-dupp, its melody
carries a pitch that flows
through all the heartaches
and metre of the blood

This reinforces the Keatsian idea of no real self existing. Murmur is packed with metaphysical concepts but also allows space for us to create our own murmurings, a result of its subtlety that is neither tenuous nor cryptic.

Even upon entering the almost-epistolary sequence of Catrin Glyndwr’s tragic story from the captivity of The Tower of London, each poem specifically captures us with universal and astounding lines, such as, ‘I’m counting time/with strands of my children’s hair’. A public story becomes personal as its form draws each emotion to the vitriolic core until we feel the stone walls around us:

I mark the wall with blood
squeezed from my nail
bitten to the quick.

As contemporary readers, we appreciate this history as closely as an audience of the fifteenth century. Then, as the sequence continues to meander through the desperate and frightened tedium of ‘Birdsong’, to the dull hope of ‘Incident’, we find ourselves unquestionably related, as though this is as recent to us as the Gleision colliery tragedy of 2011, which Elfyn writes about just as convincingly in ‘The Gate’. There is a constant flow in Elfyn’s writing that, like ‘Shawl’, another poem of the Glyndwr sequence, absorbs the warmth of human essence, the comfort beneath and beyond danger and control. Towards the end, we sense the rhythm of the sequence tiring from the very energy of its wonder, and we feel enriched.

We expected a tragedy to this collection and, like the running water of Rilke’s words, we have watched it unfold, like the ‘small world’ becoming a bed sheet in Elfyn’s ‘Handkerchief Stories’ poem, to expose narratives that crawl beneath the skin. This collection, amidst its sour darkness, provides breaths of optimism as we work through the marvellous cloth, ‘stitch over stitch’, each murmur like a thread through the poems, giving space to the sound.