REVIEW by Jonathan Edwards

NWR Issue 107

Letters from Portugal & Black and Blue

by Landeg White & Cathy Galvin respectively

Letters from Portugal by Landeg White and Black and Blue by Cathy Galvin are distinctive and interesting poetry publications in whose company it is a pleasure to spend time. One thing they have in common is that they could have been better served by their publishers. Galvin’s pamphlet, a sonnet sequence about family history and loss, lacks a decent blurb, making its coverage of funerals and school uniforms, of aprons and drama – ground we can all relate to – less accessible than it might be. White’s book, similarly, has the disadvantage of being oddly laid out. It is illustrated beautifully by the Portuguese artist António Bandeira Araújo, whose energetic surrealism and portraiture, at its best, recalls the extraordinary work of Wales’ own Alan Perry. But the space given to this artwork limits that for the poems, meaning that the poems, rather than having the page each which they deserve, are squashed together in a continual stream of text.

To begin with the Welshman. White’s Letters from Portugal is structured around the epistolary sequence which its title would suggest, interspersed with shorter, more occasional poems. It is one of these latter pieces which provides the moment in the book I most love. ‘Across the Valley’ is an excellent observation of a relationship and exploration of psychogeography, in which the relationship between physical and emotional distance is effectively played upon. The poem’s structure and stanza breaks are artfully managed to enact its theme, culminating in an effectively suggestive open ending: ‘The chimney’s / already smoking as I approach home.’

In terms of the book’s central sequence, though, one question which might occur to a reader is whether the letters which constitute the book’s spine are actually poems at all. They lack the music and imagistic compression of poems; line breaks are not exactly arbitrary, but it is rare to find one that adds an extra dimension to meaning. One also feels, at times, that White would benefit from re-visiting William Carlos Williams’ old mantra, ‘No ideas but in things.’ The letters are often at their strongest when they do focus on the concrete; ‘Letter 8’, for example, begins effectively with ‘Our new Ariston-Hotpoint cooker’. It should also be said that White uses the epistolary form to branch out in an admirable range of directions in terms of subject matter. At times, though, his leanings towards the abstract are risky. In ‘Letter 6’, for example, he states ‘I derive / wonder (not the sublime) these days from the New Scientist, not Poetry Review.’ The same letter concludes with the following lines, which are interesting as an idea, but neglect the wisdom of Williams’ mantra in generating poems which derive emotive power and mystery from a focus on the concrete: ‘Poetry can’t match such news, its unique / virtue to keep us sure-footed, especially / when, as always, we’re on the move.’

Any fault found with Letters from Portugal because of its engagement with ideas, however, must take into account the success of White’s writing when he deals with the imagistic and the concrete. Does his willingness at times to engage with the abstract undermine his success or does it show an interesting willingness to push in new directions? The collection’s first poem, ‘Foreword’, is instructive here. The poem’s subject is nothing other than the history of language and its study; the poem tells us, ‘In the 80s, all changed. Gingerly, linguists / began prodding that wrinkled hide… 30 years on, linguists are still circling the beast.’ This is, of course, a daftly abstract thing to write a poem about and, in a month when I saw the great American poet Thomas Lux, at the Aldeburgh Poetry Festival, warn against the dangers of putting words longer than three syllables into poems, as they tend to be abstract, ‘telling’ words, which remove mystery and suggestive emotive power from a poem, I was bothered by some of the words in this poem: ‘classification’, ‘semantics’, ‘morphology’, ‘obsolete’, ‘semiotics’, ‘neologism’. Is it ever going to be possible to make a decent poem out of such ugly words? But get to the end of the poem, and White offers us an excellently suggestive ending: ‘the elephant drinks / deeply and a frog melts in the water’. The visual interest of that image and the suggestiveness of its relationship to the poem’s wider themes draw us back into the piece, just as White’s skill with concrete detail and suggestive imagery continue to draw us into the poems throughout.

If White’s work sometimes risks abstraction, Galvin’s Black and Blue has a focus on the specifics of family life. It is also formally interesting, as the pamphlet consists of a sequence of fifteen sonnets. Elements from the last line of each sonnet are incorporated in the first line of the next, leading to an impressive technical accomplishment which has an interesting relationship to the theme of family ties and the passage of time which the poems explore. Galvin’s willingness to play with and build upon the history of the sonnet might remind us to some extent of the work of writers like Paul Muldoon.

In Galvin’s hands, the sonnet is a pliable and relaxed form. There are no booming rhythms here and, though rhyme is used, it’s skilfully managed so that it doesn’t draw attention to itself. The sequence begins dramatically with speech: ‘“It’s blacker than blue. Your hand is going black.”’ Such speech is used a couple of times in this first sonnet and gives it the crackle of vernacular energy that is largely absent from the sequence’s dominant poetic voice. Concrete detail conjures the scene with admirable economy: ‘A side-table offering soccer book, specs, / crossword from the Daily Mirror.’

A comparison with the work of Paul Muldoon is hardly fair on any writer, but it does highlight why Galvin’s pamphlet is not a complete success. Poems like Muldoon’s ‘Quoof’, ‘Why Brownlee Left’ and ‘Holy Thursday’ are completely unforgettable because of their ability to take small moments and make them suggestively representational of something much, much larger. That doesn’t quite happen with Galvin’s sonnets. Where White risks abstraction, Galvin is in some ways too specific; she seems to be talking always about her experience and not about the reader’s: ‘But I could choose whether my sister and I / came to her burial.’ Such moments, and the overall feeling that Galvin is dealing with a narrative and an experience that the reader isn’t entirely in on, make you wonder whether she’s writing ultimately to engage us, or to deal with issues she needs to, though the careful and impressive control of form makes the sequence art more than confession.

There is one more thing which makes the reader like this pamphlet: its ending. Here is its concluding couplet:

By the bedside, a rosary. This is what you gave me to understand:
fight, love, let go. Sing of what you can not touch: this hand.

Galvin moves here into something transcendent and emotionally powerful. The movement into longer lines seems to allow her to take on more emotional weight. That lovely last sentence is powerful not just for itself but also because it seems to draw on and contextualise everything in the sequence and its writing and to focus all of that in one concrete thing: ‘this hand’. The reader is drawn immediately back to the beginning of the pamphlet as, like White, Galvin reveals herself to have a canny understanding of how to maximise the power of endings to keep readers engaged with her work.

Jonathan Edwards was runner up for the Cardiff International Poetry Competition in 2012, won the Terry Hetherington award for young writers in 2010, and is the author of My Family & Other Superheroes, his debut collection, won the Costa book award’s poetry category.


previous review: The Lantern Cage
next review: Second-Hand Rain


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