‘On Becoming a Fish was inspired by a series of walks around the 186 mile Pembrokeshire coastal path … famous for its spectacular views from cliffside paths’
but the poems evoke images of lonely meditations taken after a long walk, sat on a bench or rock staring out to sea or examining the scattering of people and their activities on a beach at dusk. The images and language do not smear together in a smooth arc at the steady pace of a walk.
A generous offering of 57 poems comprise this collection, none lasting more than a single page. Self-contained and well defined, each poem is concise and shapely, most are contemplative snapshots rather than narratives giving the movement of this collection an intermittent feel, each separate poem glides into focus strikes a pose then dissipates, leaving a misty cadence as the backdrop for the next, like a series of Islands unwittingly discovered.
Strong themes, eternal in language and humanity smoulder throughout: isolated inter-determinacy, cold communion; essential and elemental oppositions of fire, ice, water, earth prove to be the skeleton and the cladding of this collection which revels in the revealing and obscuring tides of time, and language. It sympathises cleverly with the play between scientism and mytho-logic. Most of all it is the play between water – specifically the ocean – and various edgings of land that is ever-present.
Anyone who reads this collection by young poet Emily Hinshelwood will be impressed. Firstly, they will be impressed by the delicacy with which the themes of drifting isolation and crushingly affirmative reunion ring through the work conterminously. They will be impressed by her phrasing and her imaginative turn of phrase. Certainly they should be impressed by the development through the work from the early poems which sensually seek to locate and interact with place and physicality to the latter score or so which are more developed, more evolved, more intense linguistic meditations. There is much to be praised.
There is also great variation. There is also variation in technique, genre and form: pseudo-sonnets and ballades share close space with free verse and highly visual concrete shapes are drawn around and under fragile sonic and tactile abstractions. She prefers in-rhyme, subtle syllabic or half-rhyme to full blooded perfect rhyme, this is a good choice; it lends nuance to naïve rhythmic patterns and underlines, with cadences rather than blousy harmonies, the contrapuntal nature of this finely written collection.
The variation regrettably extends to the quality of her work which swings to and from an excellent opening to lousy middle. The deftness of her phrasing is sometimes undermined by a desire to lambaste anti-environmentalism, N.I.M.B.Y.ism, sexism, petty politics etc. which the reader can feel mounting. In this area she exhibits no skill.
Hinshelwood is a better poet when solemn or contemplative, she is weak when she confuses flippancy with humour and whereas bottles of Fanta and emetic, cutesy phrases like ‘pinky-naked’ are rightly not to be found in any of the best poems of this collection, they form the would-be punchlines of ‘Skinny-Dipping’. ‘Beetroot’ and ‘Bubblepop and the Devil’s Balls’ are also weak; none of these add to the collection, they stray into cliché and are insipid and stale, unimaginative and importantly they are unpoetic. She is inconsistent in her sensitivity to the connotations of the objects she allows to feature in her poems; twice she makes mention of Pirates of the Caribbean in a collection which is thirsty for a considered comment on piracy, a pertinent and timely topic.
There are other graceless flashes. At points she fills your mental palate with claggy images of her quite revolting-sounding lunches; her ‘courgette pie’, the beetroot and ‘dense’ bread of her sandwiches. The delicate, interesting play of olfactory stimulation that is a strength of this collection elsewhere is clouded and blotted out by these dreadful evocations.
Her abilities are occasionally frustrated as is her path towards true sophistication, complexity, sensitivity and originality by throwaway lines which constitute severe and sudden lapses in concentration or focus on the voice of the poetry itself. For the reader these breaks ruin the motions, the movements rather than punctuate the good lines, which are the majority; good lines do not need bad ones for relief.
‘Skinny-Dipping’ is comfortably the weakest poem of the collection, however, and I am happy to say it is in its own company as a wholly misconceived inclusion. There are a few poems here bruised by ill-fitting metaphors – for Hinshelwood is far stronger with similes than metaphors – or deflated by poor word choice or conceptual clumsiness but they remain worthy entrants and good poetry, injured or not.
The fairly consistent excellence of the second half of the collection allows the conclusion to gather pace and poignancy as well as complexity of thought. Hinshelwood seems to imply a progression towards intellectualism, away from the early primitive impressionistic sensualism (which when she pulls it off is just as successful). The various allusions towards evolution intimate that the title ‘On Becoming a Fish’ has half an eye on imaginatively reversing the evolutionary tract though the movements of this work are forward-linear and progressive both in tone and quality. She soars in the final ten poems and three of the best – ‘Boat,’ ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ and the concluding poem ‘Final Walk’ – all in the last four.
I must coolly but seriously insist that you read all three of these last mentioned poems during which the whole piece fuses together yet remains definitively divided and neatly, sensitively, wisely, craft-fully concluded. And in order to read them and understand their true pedigree and meaning I must insist that you also read the full collection beforehand (Skipping ‘Skinny Dipping’.)
I say this because it is good poetry, at times very good and I suggest it could be the first major showcase of a talent who will bloom and burgeon further and will soon constitute a strong poetic force in Wales.
(Photo credit requested)