Poems from Snowdonia
Selected by Amy Wack
31 poems, 32 pages
Publisher: Seren 2019
To order: www.serenbooks.com
reviewed by Neil Leadbeater
Poems from Snowdonia forms a part of Seren’s attractively produced pamphlet series celebrating the spirit of place in Wales. The other pamphlets in the series are titled Poems from Cardiff; Poems from Pembrokeshire and Poems from the Borders. The poems in all four pamphlets are selected by Amy Wack who was born in Florida and educated at San Diego and Columbia universities. A former graduate of the MFA Writing Program at Columbia University in New York City, she now lives in Cardiff and has been Poetry Editor at Seren since 1992, where she has edited a number of poetry collections, including Oxygen and Burning the Bracken.
The poems in this anthology are grounded in the dramatic mountain scenery of the Snowdonia National Park, a region in northwest Wales covering 823 square miles of diverse landscapes which include the highest mountain in England and Wales, craggy peaks like Cader Idris and Tryfan, the largest natural lake in Wales and many scenic villages such as Betws y Coed and Beddgelert. There are also poems set in coastal areas, the beaches around the Dyfi estuary, in Gwydr Forest and on a hill farm near Blaenau Ffestiniog.
All the poems are written in English or, in certain cases, have been translated into English. A full page of acknowledgments acts as a handy reference point for detailing the individual collections or anthologies from which the poems have been selected.
The cover photograph of Castell y Gwynt - Glyder Fach by Nicholas Livesey shows the ruggedness of the landscape which is reflected in the taut vocabulary of some of the poems. Zoe Skoulding in ‘Gwydr Forest’ writes about ‘water landscapes’ that ‘turn to vapour / in our mouths’ and Lee Duggan writes in ‘Another Brook’ of ‘ragwort and sharp horizoned borders,’ ‘gasping fields and / blue blue blue caught in washes of white.’ Like many poems in this collection, it is much informed by location and very visual in its impact.
Animals feature prominently in this anthology. In ‘The Greenfinch’ by Carol Rumens words imitate the sounds emitted by the bird and the layout of the text mimics something of its flightpath. The vocabulary is, at times, a little reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins with its descriptions of the greenfinch: ‘wing-flash,’ ‘feather-flush,’ and ‘blackey-whitey tail’. It is as if the poet is trying to capture the essence of the bird while it is in flight without ever seeing it whole. A different treatment is given in ‘Chough’ by Jean Atkin. Here, the chough is described as some kind of reincarnation or metamorphosis of King Arthur ‘a fire-crow,’ playing on its Latin name pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax, a ‘red spark in a char of reeds’ and a ‘farandole of fire-flashed beak and feet’. In ‘Bird of the Century’ Rhian Edwards writes eloquently about the red kite, ‘of a flock that ‘double-dares, knife-edges / through the pirouetting turbines’ …’Marilyn Monroeing the frocks / of the ever coy Evergeens’ as ‘they helter-skelter around the spoils’.
The sheep in Richard Poole’s ‘Sheep in Blaenau Ffestiniog’ stroll down the street:
When passing passers-by
they meet them squarely eye-to-eye,
don’t blink or deviate – sure, the pavement
is wide enough for a sheep and a man –
though one looks like a proper gent,
the other Caliban.
The disdain of these sheep is exquisite.
In ‘The Snowdon Rainbow Beetle’ Gillian Clarke writes about an insect that is surviving on Snowdon’s western flanks but is under threat of extinction. Living under stones and rocks, it is about the size of a ladybird but its wing cases are striped with iridescent bands of red, gold, green and blue. Once seen, it is never forgotten:
Genetically distinct, a jewel,
its elytra striped with copper, gold,
precious metals of the mountain, emerald,
blue of the inky llyn, the colour of slate
What’s beauty for, but to disguise
a beetle as a waterdrop to hold
Snowdonia in a carapace of gold?
The landscape of Snowdonia is everywhere in these poems. In ‘Driving Home’ Christine Evans notes that ‘Even telegraph poles take on dignity, / Lining the route.’ There is mystery, too, in Joe Dunthorne’s poem ‘Maentwrog Hydroelectric’ which is short enough to quote in full:
The penstock stems
through the canopy,
the petalled reservoir
out-staring the sky: black,
blue, grey, a mirror
for weather, a plant
for power. When it rains
the nectary hums.
Our grandparents as
children gathered here
by the tailrace to watch
the whitewater bloom.
I like the way Dunthorne uses technical terms (penstock, tailrace, whitewater) associated with the hydroelectric power station and pitches them against botanical terms (canopy, petalled, nectary, bloom) and how the start of the second stanza changes the meaning of the word ‘plant’ which might have had some association with the botanical imagery into something more concrete. The word ‘hums’ calls to mind the nervous hum, not so much of bees, but more of electricity. The common denominator in all of this is energy. Somewhere in the back of my mind I recall this line from Dylan Thomas: ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower / Drives my green age.’
This is a great selection of poems that will be of interest to anyone who wants to explore the work of both established and new and emerging poets writing in Wales today.