REVIEW by Phillip Clement

NWR Issue 108

The Wood below Coelbren

by Simon Rees

n his new collection, The Wood below Coelbren, Simon Rees introduces readers to a forest that extends for many miles beyond the earthly township and shakes history with its subtle invocations of ages past. For Rees, Coelbren is many things: its ‘branches strewn like matches’ as a lot cast to determine one’s fate; an alphabet, kept by ‘psuedo-poets and ‘would-be bards’ in a search for pearls of wisdom; a library within a ruined city, its roots ‘flying out in buttresses’ that contain ‘all the world’s history, set / in letters of leaves, vegetation / imprinted onto the shale.’ But in his attentive hands it is ever a tool with which readers can explore an ancient ‘forgotten’ land.

In the opening sequence, ‘Coelbren’, Rees creates a slow and meditative rhythm with careful use of punctuation and enjambment that is largely maintained throughout the collection.

The trees cling by their claws, / Gripping, grasping the soil, / Then fall, leaving the gorge / Dug deeper and wider. // Their carcasses criss-cross, / Branches strewn like matches, / Trunks tossed like yarrow-stalks a fortune-teller reads.

These yarrow-stalks hold indicators of things to come as harsh, desperate and violent terminology – ‘cling’, ‘gripping’, ‘gorge’, ‘carcass’, ‘strewn’ – is used to conjure an image of a land in strife, torn and divided.

This theme is continued in the warlike ‘Siluriad’ that depicts the Cambrian natives as ‘dwellers among rocks’ capable of springing, guerrilla style, from the land ‘like lichen, moss, / or the plants that split stone’ in forced combat against the invading Romans, ‘armoured like lizards, with scales of silver / glinting and clanking in the wind’.

The second section of the collection, ‘The Journal of Julius Sextus Frontinus’, sees Rees occupy the spirit of the second Roman Governor of Britain – the man who would later subdue the rebellious Welsh Silures of the previous sequence – as he suffers conflicting dreams of taming the water that separates him from his wilting homeland and offers him fame should he find the strength to conquer it (and the land):

First we build / a reservoir, a cistern cut / in the high slopes above the workings / […] / I have learned, here on this Cambrian soil, / What I’ll take back with me to Rome. / There, aqueducts rot, the leaking cisterns / Sap the city’s strength by the hour, Leaving the fountain-mouths dry as stone.

Elsewhere Rees retraces the steps of the ancient Roman recorder of roads in ‘The Ravenna Cosmographer’ and tracks the Empire’s expansion and progress from Ireland to India in a series of poems which evokes the ‘lost’ regions of such as ‘Metambala’, ‘Minox’ and ‘Ypocessa’.

The three heads of Cerberus the Hellhound are scouted from afar on Cardiff’s Schooner Way in ‘Hinterland’ and in the later section, ‘Crafts’, Rees turns back the clock – yet again – to allow the craftsmen: lapidarists, stonemasons and shipwrights of the middle ages and beyond an opportunity to create anew. Here, from ‘Glazier – Ely Cathedral – 1339’, a glazier describes his delicate vision for a dramatic stained-glass pane:

I cut it down to size. The pincers gnaw / morsels of red. The contours that remain / Will form the wound in Jesus’ side. His blood, / Cut from flashed ruby glass without a flaw, / Flows down his ribs and pools along his flank.

Though the collection loses some of the steam acquired in the penultimate ‘Bestiary’ section, Rees does well to rally the collection for an inspiring finish in the final sequence ‘Gazetter’. In particular, his narrative lyric ‘In Savonlinna’ – one of the collection’s longer poems – offers readers a delightfully superstitious tourist fantasy that calls to mind the atavistic nature of the poems at the opening of The Wood below Coelbren.

Phillip Clement is a contributor to New Welsh Review online and in print.


previous review: Discovering Scarfolk
next review: Blood Work


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