Nathan Munday examines Still, a poetry collection from Christopher Meredith which explores stillness, memory and, in keeping with the author’s previous work, the Welsh landscape.
I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed Erling Kagge’s Silence: In the Age of Noise, but I found myself returning to one of its sentences:
Keep in mind that the silence you experience is different from that which others experience. Everyone possesses their own.
I appreciate this notion of a rainbow silence, a cesur differing from person to person. While trekking towards the white poles it must have felt as if that silence was crafted for Kagge alone. Having experienced the high places myself, I get it: ‘It feels good to wonder on your own’, he writes. But then, while reading Christopher Meredith’s new collection Still, it dawned on me that the word I resisted in Kagge’s sentence was ‘possession’ — a peak-bagging individualism which was shaken recently by the stillness we all shared. Meredith’s craftmanship takes us to the ‘edge of sense’; yes, he takes us with him, and generously shares his thoughts while doing so.
Still’s cover is haiku-like — simple and clean. The first thing I did was scan the collection for that wonderful crow that appears on the duck-egg canvas like a punctuation mark. I found it among the quasi-ekphrastic couplets of ‘Even in dreamscapes’, a poem that muses on Pieter Bruegel’s ‘The Hunters in the Snow (Winter)’ c.1565. The cover’s artwork is a detail from both pieces then, balancing landscape with dreamscape; ‘Hunching figures lurch and pass’ while ‘polyphonic’ dogs’ tails express a musical movement only heard in our minds. The damaged sign swings above the hunters, pausing ludically with the words dit is inden Hert or ‘to the deer’. Yes, that winter of discontent, fuelled by the hunters’ poor catch, is interrupted by the stillness of the bird, ominously mirroring us as we peep in.
Bruegel invented this scene by the way, mish-mashing an Alpine vista with Flemish architecture. Nevertheless, we are ‘peeping in’ to this world, and ‘we [too] can never escape the frame’.
The philosophical layering in these words gives us a taster of what lies ahead in the rest of the collection. Paul Henry is spot on when he says that ‘we are left haunted, à la Frost, by a deep loneliness in the human condition’; we are all perturbed by those ‘desert places’ within — a loneliness that includes ‘us unawares’ at times.
At the banister…
The ‘still point of the turning world’, Eliot’s curious vanishing point, is the stuff of the soul, memory’s realm which, as the speaker states in ‘Moving Picture’, grows ‘weighty’ ‘in this synaptic conjuring’. ‘The moving still’, a concept captured with the droplet in the title poem ‘Still’, is an example of what Sarah Crown has called Meredith’s ‘razor-keen’ precision.
Memory is the still of slow forgetting,
the black and aching decades boiled to air,
cooled to this crawling droplet in the pipe
moving still and still in this suspension
rolling on its empty convolutions
to catch and lose a world in hard white light.
I feel included in these carefully chosen words: a ‘slow forgetting’ ‘boiled to air’. This was just one moment among many where I felt a shared stillness, something eerily familiar or uncanny. That ‘old man’ ‘at the banister’ morphed into my own grandfather quite quickly, a person who fell silent last year. A precious relic in the mind, and yet the speaker is bombarded with scepticism. The title of the next poem, ‘Air Camera’, suggests a constructed memory from a photograph; somebody else’s image ‘accidentally filed into mine’. Once again, this is something we all do; our earliest memories are often patched up with photographs. In the poem ‘Upstairs’, the speaker says that,
Something in us builds imaginary rooms
the walls somehow exhaling truth
a rippled glass reflecting
a familial face.
The personification in this stanza injects an organicity to that old idea of imaginative truth, an uncontrollable consciousness ‘exhaling’ reality. The deconstruction of the built cairn back in ‘Air Camera’, its stones slowly ‘unheaping’ in the mind, is another powerful image denying total fixity. We may possess our own galleries — what R. S. Thomas called the ‘gallery of the imagination’, or what Meredith calls ‘my memory bank’ — and yet, it’s a universal thing to ‘look again’ and search for gaps. The master poet, like Thomas before him, is privy to the apophatic way: a keen surveyor of gaps, silences, and stillness.
‘Standing Place’, written in memory of Anne Cluysenaar, is one of my favourite poems in the collection. The speaker journeys into the stillness of the room, an experience flickering between the stillness of a ‘statue in an empty square’ and the moving blurs of an old photograph. Blaise Pascal wrote that ‘all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone’. This speaker is able:
When you step in to the empty room
you interrupt whatever it was
that the room wasn’t doing
So begins the questor. The lexicon is imbued with that Quaker ‘stillness’, an experiential mode which was weaved into Cluysenaar’s own oeuvre. In an interview with Alice Entwistle, Cluysenaar gave us an insight into her dialogue with one of the great metaphysical poets, Henry Vaughan:
There’s a passage in [Vaughan’s] ‘Vanity of Spirit’ where, after a night literally ‘spent’ in thought, he walks to the little spring on the hillside behind his farm. He recalls how he’s analysed nature, looking for the source or ‘spring’ of creation, without success, until he came to ‘traces and sounds of a strange kind’ in himself, which seemed to be part of ‘this mighty spring’. That poem seems to favour inner experience over analytical reasoning.
Meredith’s poetry, especially the sequence ‘Still Air’, is written in that same tradition which emerged out of the Usk landscape. In a recent interview, the poet stated that Wales is ‘perhaps always, part of the context’. Here’s a taster of that Welsh craftsman at work:
This is the standing place
where you can’t stay
the still lake in the dream of trees
the thing it does not do.
These are the words telling nothing
that are there before
and after you.
My copy is already well-worn. I find myself returning to the poetry especially because we’re all on the cusp of movement and noise. This is a deeply intelligent and moving collection which deserves much more than this brief survey. Read it, study it, and enjoy it. Talk about it with one another before basking in that stillness, that hush which descends ‘whenever you examine great art’.
Still by Christopher Meredith is available now from Seren Books.
Nathan Munday is a regular Wales Arts Review contributor.