By Christopher Meredith
33 poems, 71 pages
To order: www.serenbooks.com
Reviewed by Neil Leadbeater
Welsh poet, novelist and translator Christopher Meredith is the award-winning author of six volumes of fiction, including the classic Shifts and The Book of Idiots, and several poetry collections including The Meaning of Flight. He was born and brought up in Tredegar, Wales, and lives in Brecon.
The crow in the cover artwork, a detail from Pieter Brueghel’s ‘The Hunters in the Snow (Winter)’ c.1565 is a picture of stillness presiding over a frozen landscape. This is just one of the ways in which Meredith rehearses all the different shades of the word ‘still’ as in deep silence or calm, a particular time-frame, photography or film. The titles of some of the poems, ‘Moving picture’, ‘Air camera’, ‘Standing place’, ‘Statues of comedians’ and the sequence entitled ‘Still air’ all hint at an exploration of these different meanings.
The first few poems explore the concept of memory – wondering why certain events remain in the memory while others do not, how memories change over time and the extent to which they are true or unreliable. Events that were initially ‘inconsequential, unconsidered’ become ‘weighty with a fixity / [they] never had’. In the title poem, the old man standing at the banister becomes some kind of illusion:
No, no, they say. You never saw him.
He couldn’t stand, and you were far too young.
But you did. He could.
In ‘Standing place,’ written in memory of the Belgian-born poet and writer Anne Cluysenaar who lived for most of her life in the UK, latterly in Wales, Meredith enters the stillness of the empty room to observe ‘the rug on a pinewood floor,’ the sculpted teapot still as a de Chirico,’ and ‘the frozen desklamp’ startling them all with his presence as if he has interrupted ‘whatever it was / that the room wasn’t doing’.
One of the most striking poems in the collection is ‘The train north’. In it, the reader is propelled along by the absence of punctuation and the fast-moving text, creating a real sense of movement. In reality, it is an account of a journey not taken (and therefore wholly imaginary) since the helpful notes at the end reveal that the author never took the opportunity to travel as far north as he could have done when he stayed in central Finland.
The atmospheric eco-poem ‘Nightfall’ delivers its message without being didactic. Here, as in other poems in this collection, Meredith is a past master at being elusive, leaving us with just enough ‘clues’ to enable us to imagine the rest.
In ‘Nettles, Cwmorthin’ we are treated to a poem in Welsh with its English translation. I like the idea of these nettles being pitched against the ruin of Tŷ'r Manijar where ‘they lean as tall men / sedate and dusted in brief sunlight / singing a noiseless air / to the broken houses, / to the high lake.’
The sequence of poems ‘Still air’ arose from a project with artist and printmaker Sara Philpott. Poet and artist responded to their local landscapes and exchanged ideas. The original intention was to work with William Condry’s Natural History of Wales but this was left behind as the work developed. His influence remains in the poems though, especially in ‘Village birds’ and its epigraph. There is something autumnal in this sequence: a mistle ghost singing in late summer, ash trees divesting themselves of their leaves ‘Come October’s party they’re the first / to let the yellow music take / them to the floor to dance / a trembling striptease’ and then the inevitable following of the winter solstice and the stillness of winter woods in the landscape of the Usk Valley.
Finally, ‘Even in dreamscapes,’ a poem that appears earlier in the book, brings us back to that artwork on the cover:
And then that single upright crow
on the bough of a decorous framing tree
real as any you’ve ever seen
nails it, is both of this world and peeping in
as we are, but spells out how
we never can escape the frame
and is still and stiller than
we’ll ever be.