REVIEW by Suzannah V. Evans

NWR Issue r17

Diary of the Last Man

by Robert Minhinnick

‘I am not vital to this world’, Robert Minhinnick declares in Diary of the Last Man. His new poetry collection is a hymn to ‘this world’, as well as a warning about what might happen if we continue to abuse our natural surroundings. It is also a complex meditation on the idea of home and belonging, explored through carefully crafted, and often extremely beautiful, poems. The first of these, a poem sequence, lends the collection its name. In the vein of much speculative fiction, Minhinnick imagines a post-apocalyptic world in which only a few people have survived:

I am the last man.
Perhaps I deserve to be.
So in this driftwood church
I hum my hymn of sand.
Yet any god
would be welcome here.
Any god at all.

The piece, entitled ‘Prophecy’, is a good example of Minhinnick’s gift with sound: ‘hum’ and ‘hymn’ reverberate across each other, the combined sounds extending to suggest the gulf of empty time that the speaker suddenly finds himself in. The repetition of ‘Perhaps’ also finds its echo in the recurrence of ‘any god’, forming a frame for the natural images of driftwood and sand. Like other fragments in ‘Diary of the Last Man’, the piece is perfectly formed, its shape suggestive of a medallion, washed up on the shore, something that could be picked up and held in the hand.

Later in the poem, oyster shells are imagined as the ‘faces / of old men at their gruel’ with ‘blue craniums’, a wonderfully apt image that may also intimate the speaker’s loneliness. Deprived of human company, and left with ‘horrors. . . in my head’, the speaker must look to nature for company and reassurance. Being the last man is not easy, as ‘The New World’ makes clear: ‘This castaway’s life? I curse it: / scoffing scurvygrass, burying my scat’. As with ‘Prophecy’, the sound resonances here are extremely satisfying, the cacophonic ‘c’ imitative of the speaker’s curses. These hard sounds are contrasted to the jaunty rhymes of ‘How it goes’, the piece that follows it:

Evolution theory suggests that we
were once the colour of the sea.
But now we match, it’s true,
ash from a disposable barbeque.

The sing-song lines belie the seriousness and sense of degradation behind them. Elsewhere, Minhinnick’s metrical flirtation is evident in lines such as ‘and the moon that dips its sickle in the surf’, which, without the ‘and’, scans as iambic pentameter. His querying, questing poetry resists the polish of consistently reliable meter, however, and in this case the extra ‘and’ changes and lengthens the line, as the moon’s light itself extends and ‘dips’ into the sea.

Absence and silence are themes that ‘Diary of the Last Man’ returns to. ‘Not a soul now, / not a sound’, ‘The Future’ declares, where the vowels of ‘sound’ form a companionable echo to those of ‘soul’, filling in for the absent human beings. The London Eye, Regent Street, the Travellers’ Club are all shown to be abandoned, and the speaker is able to ‘sit in the travellers’ armchair / and sip the travellers’ gin’ uninterrupted, the smallness of ‘sit’ and ‘sit’ suggesting futility. This lack of human company also allows the speaker to enter 10 Downing Street, where a computer reveals ‘the cover-ups, the scandals, / advice on how to smile, how to apologise’. Despite himself, the lonely last man looks back to these days as ‘the great days, the last of our lives’.

‘Mouth to Mouth: A Recitation Between Two Rivers’ is another long poem sequence, based on the Ogmore and Cynffig rivers in south Wales. As in ‘Diary of the Last Man’, Minhinnick’s language is rich, and pays close attention to intricacies of nature, so that lines like ‘skerricks of light that leave me / marvelling at moths and the mosaics of my own skin’ leave the reader marvelling as much as the speaker. Minhinnick also writes well on animals and their unknowability, and roe deer, choughs, and foxes dart in and out of his poem. He describes a ‘fawn almost black, sipping / from its own reflection in a pool’, but before the speaker can observe more closely, the fawn and its companions are ‘edging away / under the thundersky’. An owl is ‘unreachable as my own breath’, and the landscape itself is similarly elusive. ‘This land resists knowledge. It spurns familiarity. What is rejected is human seduction. These dunes prove unknowable in the ways I wish to experience them’, the speaker notes in a prose section, his short lines underlining his seriousness. ‘I am neither integral nor native’. Later parts of the poem turn to history, with the speaker examining ancient footprints by the river. Imagining the owner of these footprints, the speaker conjures a dancing woman who liked to ‘paint her eyes with kohl and ochre’. Like the poet himself, however, ‘those ancestors did not belong. Even when they died and the sand packed their brainpans and whistled through their bones, they did not belong’.

While the two longer poems in the book focus on the unknowability of the natural world, ‘Lines for Steve Harris’ questions the mysteries of the human body. This time, nature seems to embody the human experience of illness in the poem as the speaker drives his dying friend to a hospice: ‘Dirty bandages, that snow, that morning’. The poem’s bleak theme is revealed through lines that are often beautiful, despite their great sadness, as when Steve sees ‘that speckling on the scan: / his breast more spotted than a mistlethrush’. Later, the lines shorten as the intensity builds:

But that scent?
Is it the sulphur
in him? The silver?
In him? The gases
from the iron star?
Within him?
Is it the calcium
as his bones begin to snow?

The passage ends with the perhaps world-weary ‘And so it goes. / And so it goes’, although the words may also suggest a quiet, and sad, acceptance of the world’s natural rhythms and life cycles. It is in observing these cycles of sea and river, human and animal, that Minhinnick most excels, and his collection as a whole is beautifully and acoustically attuned to what is most precious in our lives and around us.


previous review: Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children's Fantasy: Idealization, Identity, Ideology (Dimitra Fimi, 2017)
next review: Three Japanese Novellas


A brief note on copyright:all authors have given permission for their work to appear online on New Welsh Review's website. Copyright remains with the author. If you wish to reproduce part or all of any article then the permission of the author must be sought, and the author and New Welsh Review credited accordingly.

Contact us:Registered Office PO Box 170, Aberystwyth, Ceredigion, SY23 1WZ - Telephone 00 (44) 1970 628410
© New Welsh Review Ltd, all rights reserved - Registered in England and Wales - Registered number: 02493828
Website design: mach2media and mopublications      Website development: Technoleg Taliesin Cyf.