Thomas Tyrrell reviews Afternoons Go Nowhere, the tenth poetry collection from the award-winning Sheenagh Pugh. Available now from Seren Books.
Perhaps you’re reading this review on a smartphone at a bus station, in which case you’re one of those celebrated in Afternoons Go Nowhere:
… They know
the price of gold, what’s happening in Iran
tomorrow’s weather; they scan the world
their faces backlit; they are no spectators
but part of the play, tuned in
to a global exchange …
Where trendier voices might urge us to cast our screens aside in order to capture a more authentic experience of the bus station, urging us towards the visions of eternity attained by Allan Ginsberg in a Greyhound terminal, Pugh celebrates the pulse of information and the new opportunities for engagement in the dead time between one bus leaving and the next arriving. It’s characteristic of a poet who admits to wasting massive amounts of time online and wrote one of the first literary studies of fan fiction, alongside her two novels and nine previous volumes of verse.
Starting off at the bus station (a good place to start, though midway through the book), we have poems going in two directions. Aboard the buses, we have poems of travel and physical experience, such as Pugh’s eight poem ‘Canadian Sequence’ and her continued ruminations on her new home in the Shetland isles. Complimenting these, and interwoven with them, are the smartphone poems, virtual experience gleaned from books, history, and Wikipedia, and given a fresh twist by the poet’s perspective. These are my personal favourites, particularly the medieval poems that open the book. We have a monk whose thoughts break in upon the text of the chilly hagiography he’s copying out and whose illustrations run riot in the margin; a sonnet for Charles VI of France, who believed he was made of glass; and the strange morality of the everyday men set to sack the Palace of Savoy during the Peasant’s Revolt.
No looting was allowed. Walter said,
we are not thieves. Samson did not pocket
the temple vessels. We had never handle
such stuff. I saw men lay velvet
to their cheeks, stroke silk with fingertips
before their knives ripped though it.
‘I have been accused of being “populist” and “too accessible”’, Pugh writes on her website, ‘both of which I hope are true’. They still are: there’s nothing in Afternoons Go Nowhere that’s rebarbative or overly obscure, and there’s usually an italicised subtitle to provide a welcome hint. I had to check who Dan Leno and Samuel Butler were; a poem about C.P. Cavafy in Liverpool nearly slipped past my literary radar; and I had to spend some minutes figuring out the identity of the expiring Frenchman in ‘Seascape with dying author’. However, none of this is too onerous in the internet age and Pugh’s storytelling, structure and eye for detail are so good that these poems manage to work even without knowing the essential facts behind them. The poems come out like anecdotes, richly populated, full of incident and wry comment. When the narrator drops away and one comes across a sonnet with nothing in it but the tide and wind, the change strikes one like a tour-de-force.
Despite the variation in the material, the collection hangs together remarkably well, with warmth of Pugh’s voice detectable behind every poem. I will never read all five volumes of Konstantin Paustovsky’s autobiography, but it delights me that she has, and has extracted from it the romantic episode that forms her three-poem sequence ‘Lieutenant Schmidt’s Ideal Lady’. I like her strange perspectives on places and stories that are new to me, and it’s compelling the way she varies her free verse with form, not just in ‘La Catalana’, a doggerel ballad of prostitutes on strike, but in the half-rhymed quatrains of ‘The Painter’s Bored Husband’ and the smattering of sonnets across the collection. They’re a record of afternoons well spent, and they’re well worth taking an afternoon of your own to explore them.
Afternoons Go Nowhere by Sheenagh Pugh is available from Seren Books.
Thomas Tyrrell has a PhD in English Literature from Cardiff University and is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.