Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch, Ling di Long, Rack Press £5; Ian Harrow, Finishing Lines, Rack Press £5; Nicholas Murray, The Museum of Truth, Melos £5
Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch has been cited as a successor to the ‘narrative’ school of British poetry; a school which perhaps reached its apogee in the writing of James Fenton and Andrew Motion in the seventies and eighties. Of those two poets, Wynne-Rhydderch is perhaps nearer to Motion; Fenton’s riddling, ludic, slightly bricolage writing is not Wynne-Rhydderch’s style. Andrew Motion’s earlier work often presented fictional narrators, and Wynne-Rhydderch’s writing has also been described as ‘uncanny ventriloquism’; not least in her last book, Banjo, which explored the lives of the Scott expedition to the South Pole in 1912.
The title poem of Wynne-Rhydderch’s Rack Press pamphlet, Ling di long, presents a daughter who, ‘For two-and-six she’d scrape barnacles from/ every vessel that docked, the closest she got/ to Boston, lowered in a rope seat, and in this act/ of dangling kept, part of the way, with him.’ The ‘him’ here being ‘my father [who] missed his step/ on the gangplank in Boston harbour/ in December ’28, fell sixteen feet// down the corridor between ship/ and shore.’ Such a poem and such writing suggest some of Wynne-Rhydderch’s method. The ‘subjects’ of these poems are either in extremis themselves or seem to react to such situations. There is a quiet, unadorned quality to much of the writing, the effect of which is to heighten the more poignant, resonant moments. In the title poem, it is the parasol, which is delivered to the daughter’s mother with the father’s effects, ‘where she opened// its wings to see one painted bird sing/ something she could not hear, to another.’ This neat, warm pamphlet is threaded with these telling, evocative images.
Ian Harrow’s empathies are triangulated through the pronouns, ‘I’, ‘you’ and ‘we’; and most poems in this achieved collection move in that way. There are moments of what might be seen as clear autobiography, as in ‘Rothbury Terrace’, ‘Every year the bonfires blistered/ stunted back-lane doors;/ we set the jumping jacks/ on the fearful and the old.’ As we can see here, Harrow’s style is slightly denser and adorned than Wynne-Rhydderch’s. Harrow’s line is never over-written, but he isn’t afraid of reaching for the adjective or the slightly more unusual verb.
In Finishing Lines, the poems are often coloured by a measure of regret, of things not put right, or things unlikely to be completed. ‘Rothbury Terrace’s final verse begins, ‘Should we play the politician and apologise?’, and, of course, Harrow is only too aware that politicians actually don’t often apologise. So the poem ends with a moment of both uplift and nostalgia, the people the politicians serve ‘smiling into the sun/ on days when it was possible/ to be stylish, poor and happy -/ all at the same time.’ The poem, ‘Against Completion’, ends, ‘The House that is/ as you have always intended/ is the house you are about to leave.’ But this is all sadness ameliorated by the sense that there have been opportunities and roads taken.
Rack Press’s publisher, Nicholas Murray, has a new pamphlet, The Museum of Truth. Murray is an accomplished satirist and his pamphlet A Dog’s Brexit was ‘warmly greeted by the TLS [and these pages, too] as a valuable and rare example of successful political poetry.’ Murray is also capable of piercing empathy for the victims of politics as in his last pamphlet The Migrant Ship whose title poem poignantly depicted the lives of those undertaking voyages across the Mediterranean to Europe. In this pamphlet, Murray describes ‘The Lampedusa Cross’, the cross created by a carpenter on the island of Lampedusa from the fragments of the boats the migrants travelled in across the Mediterranean. The poem ends with the migrants ‘carrying their grief/ like a question put// again and again/ to the snapping wind.’
Murray’s new pamphlet exhibits all the vivid precision of his earlier work. There is a wide variety of subject matter in this publication; from the Lampedusa Cross just mentioned, to ‘Ballad’ in which Murray’s satirical bent is unleashed on a the variety of sights met, ‘As I went out one morning’; from a poem written after seeing a scene from a film by the Greek filmmaker, Theo Angelopoulos, to a variation on a Welsh language poem.
Like Ian Harrow’s pamphlet, Murray’s pamphlet has a slightly elegiac feel to it. The poem based on a Welsh original is called ‘Old Llywarch’, and its third and final section adumbrates the narrator’s disgust at his own old age. The section ends with a warning to the young, ‘You think yourselves certain and your progress so steady,/ but my fate shall be yours, and your future as hateful.’ In ‘God’, Murray wonders ‘when our dialogue ended’, and the poem meditates, musingly and ironically, as if the narrator and God had simply drifted apart. At the end of this poem, also, Murray is more circumspect as to whether ‘that is it, if the party is truly over,’ and ends the poem on the shortened line, ‘or whether…’ The longer and wonderfully built ‘The Dead’ is also a meditation on words unspoken, deeds undoable. This poem too shows Murray’s gift
for a telling, but unforced, ending,
that nothing we say can possibly change
what runs like a river under the stones
where we walk, where silence is natural,
where talking’s approximate, and nothing
is something, something to say.
It seems difficult to know why Nicholas Murray’s talent isn’t more celebrated. These poems touch on our contemporary world and its difficulties with a quiet but forensic wisdom.
by Ian Pople