REVIEW by Ffion Lindsay

NWR Issue 97

The Bridle

by Meryl Pugh

The twenty-four poems in Meryl Pugh’s The Bridle are centered on themes of storytelling, memory, myth, the juxtaposition of body and mind and, as the blurb suggests, what it means to have been born female. The titular bridle serves as a metaphor for poetry itself, as a means of controlling and making sense of the intense emotions and memories that threaten to break loose from Pugh’s writing. Using a combination of forms from sonnet to free verse, rhymed and unrhymed, each poem is a vivid fragment that will linger in the mind long after reading.

The collection begins with ‘The Charcoal Bridle’, which introduces the narrator’s internal struggle over whether to follow wild instinct or to conform, over how to set out as poetry those untamed thoughts and feelings, against a backdrop of a foreboding hillside:

Thoughts as strange as unbroken horses
Have led me up to the crack

Between hill and sky, air and silhouette

This opening sets the tone for a collection in which natural images feature heavily as a starting point for an exploration of human nature. Pugh takes this common device and manages to make it feel fresh; one poem ‘Ecorchée’– meaning ‘flayed’– is especially striking. In it she describes a visit to the Veterinary Museum in Maisons-Alfort:

What if I stepped free of it, exposed
the muscle fibres, fat plates, points of bone
I have in common with this peeled monkey?

Here Pugh draws our attention to the strange paradox of being both embodied and disembodied at once, wearing a physical form not unlike the one worn by this ‘peeled’ monkey, but also finding ourselves able to separate from it mentally, and thus capable of the internal dialogue from which this poem is formed. The Bridle is peppered with such snapshots of memories, which are drawn upon in order to try to explore the strangeness of human experience.

This effort to go beyond a surface understanding of events is extended to the histories that are recounted in many of Pugh’s poems. Whether it be the tale of Pwyll from The Mabinogion or her own family history, Pugh urges the reader to look past the events of the story and into the humanity of the characters described. In ‘A Story about a Story’, we hear what happened to Rhiannon’s chambermaids after they had betrayed her; the guilt and suffering of these marginal characters becomes the focus of the entire poem, providing a new way of looking at an ancient story long after we have heard the happy ending. In ‘The Unicorn (Part 1)’ Pugh manages to convey perfectly the confusion of being both Welsh and not-Welsh-enough in Wales, the repetition of Welsh phrases ‘diolch yn fawr’, ‘dim parcio’ repeated like a spell, a mantra, throughout the text. The words are made both familiar and unfamiliar at once, drawing attention to the magic of the Welsh language but also of the way it may divide people- ‘[…] You’re English (you’re not Welsh,/ You’ve just got a weird name)- and you sound posh.’ These remembered taunts speak not only on a personal level about the cruelty of children, but also reflect the poet’s perception of the language being used against the English or not-Welsh-enough in Wales, people with a great deal of love for the country who might otherwise be allies in preserving its language and culture. This divide is expressed perfectly in the lines- ‘[…] You can’t keep crossing over/ you have to choose: one side or the other.’

Overall it is these ‘story’ poems that are most effective, as the more abstract poems seem to jar a little and break the flowing rhythm of this body of work. Despite this, The Bridle still reads more like a journey than a series of set pieces. It is a little like looking through an old photo album; some of the pictures haven’t come out exactly right but they are always heartfelt and often powerful. And I for one thoroughly enjoyed the journey.

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previous review: Cheval 5
next review: Leaving the Atocha Station


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