REVIEW by Ashley Wakefield

NWR Issue r2

The Slate Sea

by Paul Henry & Zed Nelson (eds)

The Slate Sea, published by Camden Trust, forms part of a larger, multi-media project exploring identity in north Wales, and brings together six poets and a photographer who were asked to ‘record in poetry and photos the past for the present generation, and the present for future generations.’ Each participant visited Bob Borzello, the project’s creator, for a week in his cottage in Dolwyddelan to roam the streets, walk the valleys, and meet Borzello’s neighbours. The resulting collection of poems and photographs creates an image of north Wales that is sure to seem familiar.

In his introduction to the collection, Paul Henry describes the three industries of the Conwy Valley as ‘slate quarrying, hill farming, and seaside tourism’, and it is these activities that lend the book its structure. The first section, The Valley and the Village, is full of outdoor imagery – the hills, the town and the life of the people stretched between both. It opens on a tentative note with Owen Sheers’ ‘History’. From the its opening admonition to not ‘learn this place / in the pages of a history’ to its closing rhyme of ‘stone’ and ‘bone’, the poem inhabits the sort of nostalgically romantic territory that makes it a natural opener to a collection of this sort – it implies there is more waiting under the surface. The last two poems in this section, ‘How to Kill’ and ‘Liable to Floods’ are also Sheers’ contributions; though both still occasionally echo the romantic territory of ‘History’, they are also much stronger, more evocative works. Also in this section are Paul Henry’s ‘Valley Vignettes’ and ‘Two Customers’, both of similarly detailed and meditatively observant nature. The real gem of this first portion is Menna Elfyn’s ‘Eglwys Dolwyddelan’. Presented in Welsh only, the poem describes a churchyard where the living stumble over the silenced dead. It is bleak, and chilling, but not devoid of hope.

The next section, The Buried Heart, moves deeper in a literal sense, exploring the area’s mining history. Alys Conran dominates here, contributing three poems that pull no punches. Her form and tone set her sharply apart from the rest of the poets collected here, producing quick-paced, densely packed poems that favour the visceral over the intangible. Conran’s ‘Silicosis’ stands out, both in the unvarnished ugliness of its imagery, and in its insistent pace that won’t relent even as the words of the poem beg to reader to ‘breathe, oh breathe’. By comparison, Samantha Wynne-Rydderch’s ‘Blue Blood’ and Christopher Meredith’s ‘Nettles, Cemorthin’/’Dail poethion, Cwmorthin’ (presented bilingually and translated by Meredith himself), are much tamer explorations of a similar sentiment.

The final section of poems, North Coast Swing, walks a twilight coast line; the poems here exist in a liminal space between observation and action. Meredith’s poem ‘There could be temples’ captures this idea in a mystical way, superimposing pagodas and serenity over shouting stall vendors, sandaled tourists, and running children. Henry’s ‘Rhyl Dawn’ echoes the style of ‘Valley Vignettes’, but in a starker tone, moving from image to image of pre-dawn emptiness. Wynne-Rhydderch’s ‘Varnishing Day’ is unique. It reaches back to 1902 and traces the fate of female painters to their vanishing point – the point at which they, operating under the strictures of a male-dominated activity, disappear from consideration.

There is a fourth section at the end of The Slate Sea. Under New Management contains a larger collection of Zed Nelson’s photographs, and his commentary on them. ‘What I see today,’ he says of Wales, ‘is a place in transition. But transiting to where, I wonder?’ Examining the question in relation to the poetry collected, I wonder too – and look forward to the answer. The views here range from overly sentimental and dramatically nostalgic to restless, angry, hopeful, and honest. The navigation between past and present, reality and romance, the truth and what feels good to believe could echo anyone’s search for an origin, but the details of this search are uniquely Welsh, right down to the bare bones of language. Who will keep the lights on along Rhyl’s promenade? Who will read the englyn in Dolwyddelan’s church yard? Someone, I hope.

Ashley Wakefield is working on her PhD in the department of English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University.

See also Michael Nott's essay on photopoetry in Wales, Slender Underpinnings, also published in Review 2, New Welsh Review's second online supplement, August 2015.

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