“Banjo” by Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch
– a review by Michael Bartholomew-Biggs

Banjo
by Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch
Picador Poetry www picador.com/poetry
65 pp £9.99

If asked to sum up our feelings about the Scott and Shackleton expeditions to Antarctica in the early part of the twentieth century many of us might find ourselves in two minds.  On the one hand we think of failure to achieve a main objective – to ensure the British flag is the first one to be planted at the South Pole.  On the other hand we are aware of stories of extraordinary and admirable courage in adversity.  And yet this is courage of a stiff-upper-lip kind that the 21st century mind does not so easily relate to; and so it is not uncommon for us to deal with it via blackly humorous comments along the lines of I’m stepping outside and I may be some time…

The main section of Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch’s new collection Banjo approaches the Scott and Shackleton expeditions from an unusual viewpoint.  Her sequence ‘Erratics’ contains twenty-one poems that are chiefly about, or in the voices of, artists, craftsmen and tradesmen who went on the expeditions in supporting roles; and they also show how music and amateur theatricals were important in helping time to pass during the voyage and the long Antarctic nights at base camp.  “Erratics” is the geological term for rocks that have been shifted by glacial action to somewhere they do not strictly belong; and hence it seems an apt epithet for northern Europeans who deposit themselves in the southern polar regions.  A sense of incongruity is heightened when we learn that members of the expedition staged minstrel shows (We’ve all had our faces blacked / … at least once) and drawing room dramas (a butler is a must). After such performances the crew members
                                             …flounced back

to the ship, all rouged up and powdered
with flour. Oh you’ve no need to worry

about me love….

The sequence does not dwell only on such camp aspects of polar exploration however.  Much of Wynne-Rhydderch’s finely crafted poetry deals with solid objects that undergo their own stressful experiences: the ship’s piano that could only be got on board when they cut her / in half with the Cook’s meat saw. Grease helped; and the wardroom’s empty swivel chairs that have to be nailed to the floor and arch their backs to protest, all bone on show. Alongside the expedition’s printing press each letter is curled in a separate bed / in the type case like a cutaway of the ship’s cabins.

A discarded novel with its last five pages missing (and we all tried / to guess the ending) hints at the deaths of Captain Scott and his four companions.  But the book does not dwell on their heroism and hardships to the extent that some other writers have done.  Instead we see this tragedy chiefly through the eyes of those who found their bodies and shipped them home, along with the final photograph / of the five in furs beside a Union Jack’s / slap in the face. Photographers and artists record their varied impressions of the expedition and do their best to soften the harsh edges of climate and landscape; but the environment ultimately triumphs when many pictures have to be abandoned and
my tubes of oils were commandeered
to seal the seams of the three rowing boats
by which we made our escape. Saved by paint.

‘Erratics’ is a fine and moving sequence that imaginatively sheds light on the character and motivation of the (mostly young) men who set out to attempt what one of their number afterwards called ‘The worst journey in the world’.   However, it occupies only a little over half the contents of Banjo; and the first section of the book is well deserving of attention too.  Although it contains individual poems (rather disarmingly described on the back cover as a clutch of fine lyrics elegies and set-pieces) this first section is a good complement to ‘Erratics’ because many of the poems prefigure the subsequent Polar ones.   ‘Table Manners’, for instance, with its opening lines Let’s have you sitting straight. Your relationship with / furniture comes first resonates powerfully with the later poem about the wardroom chairs on Scott’s ship. In ‘Emigré’, a silent violin in its doll-sized coffin parallels the banjo in Antarctica on whose skin all the boys inscribed their names.

The all-male composition of the Polar expeditions is undercut by the intriguing ambiguities of gender in ‘Vive la Résistance!’ whose hero/heroine
                                                            … floated
like a débutante into the arms of a cornfield
outside Rouen, my parachute silks streaming
into a bridal train, adorning the corn

and for the first time felt the full weight
of what it must be to be a woman …

‘Ladies with Hammers’ presents fossil-hunting as a decorous and feminine kind of scientific exploration (The trick is not to lift your gaze / above the waist in case you miss / a pattern ) which stands as a contrast to the serious masculine stuff in the second half of the book.  The splendidly sinister ’40 Hampton Road’ gives a foretaste of the link between untimely death and photography: Here we all are / lined up. In front of the raspberry bushes. / … / Look: sticky hands. (You will have to read the whole poem for yourself to see fully why that final line is so chilling.)

Strengths of Wynne-Rhydderch’s poetry are its well-weighted lines and an inventive vocabulary – I’d watch my sister squeal water all over the raspberries; or dragging a dress through obtuse fields. Her work is not showy or over-wrought; instead she quietly creates tension and springs surprises that often carry a hint of black humour. This is a collection to read and enjoy and then go back to for subtleties you missed the first time round.