Sophie Baggot reviews Paul Henry’s tenth poetry book, The Glass Aisle, and highlights its inspiration from centuries of Welsh history.
It was only halfway through The Glass Aisle that its melodic lilt jolted my memory to recall that I once spent a halcyon half-hour relaxing to the tune of its author, Paul Henry, playing the guitar in Ty Newydd’s sunlit library. I was 13, and he was our school group’s poetry tutor for the week. I wonder whether my 13-year-old self would be surprised that, more than a decade on, I’m relaxing on a bright Sunday morning in the company of the poet’s lyrics (on paper, this time) once more.
This is Paul Henry’s tenth book. The Glass Aisle into three parts, the titular poem consumes much of the second section – an elegy to displaced workhouse residents observed in the Brecon Beacons, which threads through centuries of Welsh history. Ghosts of yesteryears haunt 21st-century passersby, and in fact, a performance version of the poem is bringing these ghosts to life on a tour with Stornoway’s Brian Briggs to coincide with the book’s publication.
But let’s start at the very beginning. Music is omnipresent across the collection, as is the rhythmic sea for the earliest section. This first chapter is named ‘The Hesitant Song’, after one of the poems that feature. In the opening poem, ‘Cliff Terrace Clouds’, clouds cross the Sugarloaf “full of my mother’s songs.” Mothers lead the way into the second, sentimental poem, too (‘Last of the Sixties Mothers’): “the jetsam of her decade | beached on suburban drives”. Born in 1959, this was the decade of Henry’s childhood.
Then, a mother’s song is more overtly in danger of loss. The poem from which the first chapter takes its name, ‘The Hesitant Song’, refers to a mother’s songs flickering in brightness – as if in danger of extinguishing altogether. Many lines from a quasi-refrain, altering only slightly each time: “Inside the sun’s amber arcade, | a beat before the singer sings | the sea’s soft pedal…”. The amber arcade and soft-pedal reappear again and again. Yet, there is an overwhelming sense of demise: “To orchestrate silence”, Henry writes in one sobering line. A little later, more contradiction: “the sea’s absence | flooded the room each day.”
A great majority of Paul Henry’s verses make reference to either the sea, or music, or both: “A fanfare of gulls … A crab makes a violin of itself” is a spectacular example of their merging in ‘The Sea in Pieces’. Henry is a skilful personifier of the elements; “the wind’s stammer | snagged on a gate” (‘Brown Helen Reclining’). As he has done in previous poems, Henry frequently directs his words to Catrin Sands, often also referring to Geta. His poem ‘Put on the Sun’ asks Catrin Sands to wear her yellow dress, and adds: “let’s walk behind our shadows | on the promenade of sighs.” The poetry feels melancholy; there’s often a sense of love misplaced: “I miss her too easily, the hook in her smile … And where she swims | in what she dreams | is further out to sea | than any line I cast.”
Loneliness creeps into several of the poems early on – and perhaps explains why the poet so often calls after Catrin and Geta. Others, too. Henry opens ‘The Fireplace’ with the line: “No one’s in except the sea.” His poetry has a habit of colloquially addressing people, without the need to explain their identity – often even just listing names italicised. Whether this serves to augment realism, or is simply irksome, is up to the reader.
Onto ‘The Glass Aisle’: Henry drew the names for his long, centre-stage elegy from an 1840s census, and the harrowing story of Mary Thomas came from a pamphlet from a certain Rev. Margaret Williams (according to the Acknowledgements). Mary’s narrated experience is acutely moving – and topical; she is a woman who is sexually abused because her son cried in the chapel. “He put one hand on my neck, | the other under my clothes. | When I told him No, he kicked me”, her ghost tells the observer. #MeToo, from beyond the grave. The elegy flickers back into Wales’ past: “Mary’s here, on a white horse | drenched in medieval leaflight.” There are other ‘ghosts’ but for me none so poignant as Mary’s tale. The closing effect is magical, surreal: “Clouds clear, stars spill, | cows amble over the moon.”
The third and final section remains nameless. I was wary, half-wondering whether Henry had somewhat run out of steam by this point. The poems themselves, though, are lovely – if not cogently forming a cohesive chapter. The close is composed largely of love poems and elegies, with a continuation of the melancholy that hangs over most of this book.
I felt that the ending of the poem ‘The Nettle Race’, “Slowly the sun leans | towards its finishing line”, would have been a perfect closure to the book. Henry does not give us this neatness, of course; instead, we have a figure waiting at a train station, hoping his daughter would return the wave that he gives as her train speeds past. He ends the poem with the lines:
and that love
however distant along its track,
however brief its glance, can forgive,
A heartrending point to close on, the poem is called ‘Not Stopping’. I hope – as I’m sure so do many – that there will be no stopping for Paul Henry. This is a poet still at the height of his powers, ten books in. Let the music play on.
The Glass Aisle is available now from Seren.
Sophie Baggott is a regular Wales Arts Review contributor.