EDITORIAL Gwen DaviesNWR Issue 103
‘Flight’. ‘Ice’. ‘Mirrors’. ‘Mirrors’. ‘Ice’. ‘Flight’. The American writer, Rebecca Solnit, loves repeating titles in her essay collections, and her latest, The Faraway Nearby
, is no exception. These doppelgängers are one of her techniques (another is tricks with footers, including the longest footnote-story I’ve seen since Stephen Knight’s Mr Schnitzel)
for taking her readers on a circular journey. Or, to match up the metaphors, promising them a return ticket.
I was working on NWR 103, uplifted by David Tipling’s cover photo of Snow Geese
, as The Faraway Nearby
kept me company at home. The latter brought the issue’s themes into focus. These are flight, and the kind of imaginative soaring that resulted in our ancestors inventing shape-shifters, and someone like Johnny Dangerously (see Lisa Blower’s story in this issue) springing from the mind of a troubled boy and the pen of a BBC National Short Story nominee. Flying symbolises change, choice, a route to freedom and independence, where the opposite path leads to constraint (and going nowhere means stasis).
My other bedtime reading, Jim Perrin’s debut short story collection, A Snow Goose
, brought geese and other creatures to the same northern watering hole. Perrin, like Solnit, is fascinated by the totemic power of wildlife. The goose in Perrin’s title story will wing it south while his protagonist, explorer Crozier, won’t make it off the lakeshore. Solnit’s accounts of Native American and Inuit folk motifs include goose wives trapped when they drop their feather dress, and bear husbands who shed coats to regain human form. Perrin’s anthropomorphic polar bear, whom Crozier helped slaughter, is a sort of shamanic reincarnation of the husband of Crozier’s new Inuit wife. Perrin talked to me about these new stories on landscape at the National Library in January, in relation to the library’s exhibition, Welsh Landscapes/Tirlun Cymru (see page 3). ‘A Snow Goose’ leaves us in no doubt that Perrin roots for those people most finely attuned to nature.
Birds and People
, from which our cover photo is taken, offers a more pragmatic view of human and avian relations (although Perrin was a major contributor to the volume), pointing up the Snow Goose proper as being an evolutionary success story. These birds have thrived to the degree that hunting restrictions on them have been lifted. Author Mark Cocker quotes Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac
By this international commerce of geese, the waste corn of Illinois is carried through the clouds of the Arctic tundras, there to combine with the waste sunlight of a nightless June to grow goslings for all the lands in between. And in this annual barter of food for light, and winter warmth for summer solitude, the whole continent receives as net profit a wild poem dropped from the murky skies upon the muds of March.
Inaugural National Poet Gwyneth Lewis’ column, ‘Can Larks Fly Backwards?’, takes as its inspiration Cocker and Tipling’s volume. Quoting Cocker she writes:
‘(Birds) are fellow travellers of the human spirit, and have also colonised our imaginations, as if we were one further habitat to conquer and exploit.’ Perhaps that’s the explanation for my ever-growing interest: I’ve become a dependency. Mentally, I’m a suburban garden with a bird table and generous supply of seed (…) For a poet, (Birds and People) is an essential work of reference. Welsh birds are fully present from the beginning.
So NWR is a place where men are bears, wives are geese, your mind is Bermuda for a passing Blue Tit, and fancy takes wing. In ‘Johnny Dangerously’, the feats (indeed, existence) of Kobin’s hero count for more than his mates’ virtual star chart: they offer an airlift out of neglect and poverty.
Class is also the focus of Charlotte Williams’ ‘Molly Drake: How Wild the Wind Blows’, about songs written and performed by the mother of early 70s bedsit antihero, Nick Drake. Compelled by the unassuming style of Molly’s music, Williams realised how much her own performance was shaped by a shared colonial heritage. She comes to terms with the taboos and traditions of her mother’s post-war generation, one that frowned upon female performance as ‘showing off’. Williams’ piece in the magazine is accompanied online by her cover of Drake’s song, ‘How Wild the Wind Blows’ (piano and vocals). Returning to our theme of independence and restraint, Williams’ retort to her own ‘cock-rock’ generation may here represent an acceptance of class (albeit upper middle-class) stasis:
As a young woman in the Seventies… I always felt rather embarrassed about my continuing fondness for the kind of ‘parlour’ songs my mother had taught me…. Performing ‘How Wild the Wind Blows’… I found it poignant to return to that style of music, and realised for the first time how difficult it must have been for our parents – accustomed as they were to a diet of tuneful, romantic, and often gently witty songs – to listen to their children completely rejecting this aesthetic, instead croaking out three-chord blues-based ditties in fake American accents….
Alternatively, Williams’ attitude could be seen as completing a circle, showing serene acceptance of those ingredients that made her music. A similar maturity marks Fflur Dafydd’s column on jetting off to be an International Writing Fellow for Hay Festival with two small daughters back home.
Our understanding of flight and its counterparts, then, may include independence, plucking ‘waste corn’ and ‘waste sunlight’ to grow imaginary goslings, or suffering staying put. Perhaps Allison McVety’s ‘Tightropes’ puts the matter neatest when it comes to whether, in love at least, to trust to thin air: ‘In this groove / of time we’ve dropped the pole, thinning our weight / from one hand to the next.’
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