REVIEW by Nathan Llywelyn Munday

NWR Issue r29

Shards of Light

by Emyr Humphreys

When I received a copy of Emyr Humphreys’ Shards of Light, I expected a kind of archaeological poetry. These previously unpublished poems are written by ‘Wales’ foremost novelist of his generation’. They are, as M Wynn Thomas eloquently puts it, the ‘cool, measured calibrations of experience’ written by a man on the cusp of his hundredth year.

For me, shards are those pieces of clouded glass sleeping in the soil, or long-forgotten arrowheads embedded in the dark. They are beautiful and sharp – pain-inflictors – requiring careful and skilful handling when excavating. Shards of light are transient, or as the poet puts it, ‘as elusive / As sunlight in the lane’. But the discovery of ‘the one right word’ reveals, in Howard Carter’s words, ‘wonderful things’. It ‘shake[s] all our routines’, ‘make[s] the universe feasible / And pushes the tribes towards the mosques’.

These poems are a conurbation of words; precious fragments drawn from the site of life: 
Can live in narrow houses
When love lies under the dust
To be recovered with a soft brush.
(‘The Old Couple’)

The aged speaker is only wise if he continues excavating with care. Waldo Williams’ broad halls and narrow walls are given new dimensions; living seems to require digging as well.

The poetry is also lapidary; this collection allows us to join Humphreys as he brushes away the dust. He is not an omniscient Indiana Jones figure – cheating death or whipping relics away from collapsing ceilings. No, this is someone real who wonders at eternity, acknowledges that lurking mammoth in the room called Death, and embraces the mystery of godliness. ‘The Old Couple’ continues:

We travel without passport
Our steps are shorter
But the same footfall
Will deliver untrodden paths
Towards perpetual refreshment
In that place of light
Furnished by the ancient of days.

This speaker imagines future renewal in a borderless realm. Passports, walls, limitations and darkness disappear. Shards and fragments are, after all, broken objects. However, the poems point to completion, or a time when light will last forever. But this time has not yet come. M Wynn Thomas calls these special epiphanic moments ‘an awed acknowledgement of a dimension of reality forever beyond human comprehension.’

Like Humphreys’ friend, RS Thomas, there is an acceptance throughout this book of the limitation of language. Its source is surely Humphreys’ old age. The silence, gaps, boredom, and contemplation which inhabits ‘the cage of old age’ allows the poet a degree of cessation which is subsequently reflected in the lines. In the poem ‘Age’, he uses the words ‘Ungrieving’ and ‘Not bothered’. On the one hand, the speaker is referring to time itself or ‘the days’ being like this. On the other hand, there is a subtle reference to youthful speech here, forever immortalised by the chewing Catherine Tate: ‘Am I bothered?’

The Brexit Referendum and all its rhetoric has evidently damaged the relationship between our generations. Old people are being stereotyped as selfish leavers whilst young people feel left out and angry. Brexit aside, there’s nothing worse than hearing nurses talking to my own tadcu, during preparations for dialysis, as if he has returned to the nursery. If anything, these poems reminded me of how precious and wise old voices can be. To block our ears toall their council would be catastrophic. In ‘Youth and Age’, the phrase ‘byr yw byw’ (‘living is short) reminds us that we are not that different, or much removed, from those with whiter hair.

The poetic hesitations or sighs prelude a better future. Gaps are as crucial as the black ink which parallels the gouache on the front cover. ‘Belief’ shows the paradoxical nature of faith, whilst ‘Lovesong’ articulates the fullness that is possible in the language of loss. The final couplet of ‘Lovesong’ is possibly the brightest shard in the book: ‘Even a withered leaf has form / Beautiful when held up to the sun.’ It reminded me of ‘A Marriage’ by RS Thomas, where that final ‘sigh’ is ‘no heavier than a feather’. These haunting images both wound and heal, expressing the beauty and pain which comes with every marriage jubilee.

This book is not the fruit of some raging old age; nor is it the voice of a grumpy sage waiting for his last breath. Rather, it reveals a precious time where ‘Ultimate discoveries’ are possible:

a spider’s thread
Of existence suspended
Like a piece of debris in outer space
That intermittently catches the sun
And threatens the sky with
The glitter of inexplicable messages.

‘Ultimate Discoveries’

Humphreys is a prophetic figure, who, ‘in winter’, observes starlight and sighs like the Magi when ‘the glitter of inexplicable messages’ threatens the gloomy sky of the twenty-first century.
Nathan Llywelyn Munday’s latest title is Seven Days: A Pyrenean Adventure, published by Parthian. He was placed second in the New Welsh Writing Awards 2016 University of South Wales Prize for Travel Writing.

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previous review: Just Help Yourself: Tom Jones, The Squires and the Road to Stardom
next review: Words the Turtle Taught Me


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