Alan Morrison on
Mavericks -20 Short Poems from Gwilym Williams
Kitchen Table Publications (2005; e-book reissue 2008)
It's a telling thing when some of the more interesting and ‘poetic’ of contemporary poetry seems consigned to the fringe journals and the smaller imprints; even more telling to find many of these underground offerings appear in self-published pamphlets that sadly only a handful of the more discerning of said journals pick out for review, in the knowledge that
a book can’t be judged by its cover, or by its lack of a bound spine.
One such offering I’ve had the pleasure to read of late (originally published by the author’s own Kitchen Table Publications in 2005; and this very month in 2008, reissued as an e-book by the author) is Gwilym Williams’ collection of twenty poems, Mavericks. Williams is, as many are no doubt aware, founder and editor of the very friendly and informative webzine Poet-in-Residence. His generosity of spirit in his exposure of other talents, shines through with equal vibrancy in his warmly accessible, pithy but descriptively rich poetry.
There’s often a reverential focus to Williams’ poems (in the consummately tight yet evocative ‘Servus Servorum Dei’, for instance), but more often than not carried with a somewhat irreverent wit – like RS Thomas crossed with Ogden Nash. In the genuinely amusing ‘Deus Absconditus’, following on from the breathtaking metaphor ‘the bleating sheep grazed on the hills/ like prayers on the way to heaven’, we get an hilariously vivid image of the well-known aforementioned (fellow) Welsh poet himself:
The pessimistic metaphor R S Thomas (poet)
is preaching from the black pulpit –…
…“The supreme Being will doubtless
fail to join us. Deus absconditus.”
There follows a bit further on another beautifully emotive passage:
The hymns will be softly sung
and strangled in the wind’s knot
before the church gate.
At his best, Williams combines Larkin’s bluntness with the sprung rhythm and verbal bounce of Dylan Thomas, as in ‘Dyl’ and the Cat’ for example:
Caitlin; barefoot and carolling
wild Irish songs;
polka dress dancing
in the seashore breeze…
…swaying now along the boathouse path
under the leeward leaning woods…
Shades of TS Eliot’s ‘ II. A Game of Chess’ passage in The Wasteland are detectable in the delightful Welsh parochialism of ‘Telling Directions’, which I quote in full:
R S Thomas is it?
We’re chapel here…
Well my husband is.
‘nglish he is, that man Thomas;
Lived in Cardiff I believe; once
Painted a church as black as night.
I can’t say I liked him very much;
Mind you, I haven’t actually read him,
But I’ve heard things you see.
Welsh, you say? And lived here?
We’re Chapel here…
No need for windows in a chapel,
The buggers can’t read, he used to say;
And him a priest.
For the Nobel Prize?
I suppose you could ask
in the village post office –
She’s … ‘nglish.
Grittier issues, such as mental illness, are powerfully commented on in the very direct ‘Who Speaks?’ which talks chillingly
of schizophrenics who are ‘roaming the cream/ corridors of the world…’ The title poem of the collection tackles the same subject with a little more ironic humour.
For me the real jewel in the crown is the enviably precise, descriptively striking ‘Cold Sweet Tea’, about his grandfather's juvenile job as a coalminer’s child assistant – which
I also include in full:
Boys, who can barely write, kneel
deep down, miles out to sea beneath
black-ribbed sands, before
the coal-face and pneumoconiosis.
Stripped to the waist, mine’s as thin
as a pit prop; a crab-shadow clawing
for coal to make a rich man richer.
From time to time he swallows
cold sweet tea from a tin,
observed by a sleepy canary
and a blind pit pony in the light
of a Davy lamp. When the clock
strikes I prepare his sink;
water, scrubbing brush, soap.
Listen for his footfall. The house,
within spitting distance of
the shaft, is going to its knees;
coming apart at its dusty seams.
Buckled and sagging, it creaks and
groans with each subsiding night.
This poem, as evidenced above, scintilates with striking descriptions and a symbolic unity: the boy with a waist 'as thin/ as a pit-prop'; the subtle juxtaposition of a house with a chapel, 'going to its knees', also evoking the 'crab-crawling' miner; the aural evocation of ‘creaks’ and ‘groans’ of the house further juxtaposed with the instability of the pit-shaft; and the brilliant end phrase of ‘subsiding night’. In one sense, we can see a pit-shaft, a house, a suggested - though not specifically mentioned - chapel, all segued into one entity; three variations on the innate instability of a mining industry, a way of life, a faith. This poem packs a real punch and evokes its subject expertly.
With poems such as these it’s a real wonder that Gwilym Williams hasn’t yet been taken
up by a larger publisher. But such is the state of the contemporary poetry scene of today, that the work of an unassuming but evidently gifted poet is pamphleteered from a kitchen table while vastly less appealing scribes flood the large imprints.
A truly enjoyable and striking little collection that will appeal to many readers and linger
tunefully with them for some time after.
All quoted extracts and poems © Gwilym Williams 2005;2008