London Grip Poetry Review – Merryn Williams

Emma Lee finds that Merryn Williams’ poetic skills are well displayed in this collection of new and selected poems

The Fragile Bridge 
Merryn Williams
Shoestring Press 
ISBN 9781912524259 
118pp   £12

This is a substantial publication of new and selected poems from Merryn Williams’ previous publications, The Sun’s Yellow Eye, The Latin Master’s Story, The First Wife’s Tale and Letter to My Rival. Many of the poems seek to give voices to those, frequently women, who are not usually heard and to explore the aftermath and effects of those hidden voices. The poem that gives the collection its title, “P.N.D.”, looking at post-natal depression, starts,

One fell off the fragile bridge,
others froze in horror.
Far below them, howling winds
and glimpse of raging water.

Readers learn that the victim left behind three close friends and a baby. The poem continues,

Driving rain, on clothes and skin;
you feel the great bridge shudder.
The baby knows there's something wrong,
stares round and sees no mother.

Three go home. All night they weep;
why could no one save her?

It’s a common question after a suicide as people look back and try to analyse if there were any warning signs that could have been picked up. PND, along with mental illnesses in general, carries a stigma. It also brings the additional worry of having a child taken away: the ultimate sign of a failed mother in someone who already feels they have failed. It’s noticeable that the poem doesn’t mention the baby’s father. It is the mother who carries the post-natal burden. It is left to the three friends to step up to carry the baby. Like most of Merryn Williams’ work, the poem uses direct, unembellished vocabulary and uses a subtle rhyme scheme.

“An Unsuitable Job for a Woman” is a sequence in five parts and looks at a female taxi driver from her own, a passenger’s, a bus driver’s, a passer-by’s and a journalist’s viewpoints. It ends

What was she doing, giving rides to strangers
at night, and in that God-forsaken place?
Perhaps there was never a man. Perhaps 
she set the car on fire for the insurances.
These girls, forever screaming rape or murder.
You can't believe a word. She asked for it.

The only female voice in the sequence is the taxi driver’s. It’s a familiar scenario: a woman is blamed for placing herself apparently in danger when she needs to earn a living and no one holds the perpetrator responsible for his actions. The last poem in the new section, “Virginia”, looks at a more famous suicide,

Dark days had come, and she was not equipped for them.
She didn't know, but could guess, that a Bishop's wife
would say that it was cowardice; the rest of us
were facing up to things, and why not she?
She knew all that. She might have coped. But when
some man without a fraction of her genius
casually snubbed her, that was the last straw.

Again, victim-blaming is present in the Bishop’s spouse’s question which suggests that Virginia Woolf couldn’t cope with the onset of the Second World War. The full poem is an unrhymed sonnet. A later poem, “To a Woman Poet”, considers a widow who “blossomed after he died” because she couldn’t write while her husband was alive – another hint of restrictions placed on women to limit their voices.

There are some tender poems which explore family heritage, both of older ancestors and a new generation. “Poem for My Son”, born after a difficult labour, is a sestina that ends,

when forced out in the middle of the night,
as dead till they slapped breath into his side.
My own date of birth perpetually receding,
I, on some small Welsh mountain, have no control
over you any more; I see you striding

through days and nights, far out of my control,
receding through the continent's vast side,
recklessly striding, I hope into the sun.

There are lighter moments. “At the Literary Festival,” considers literary fame,

Your books are stacked with his; your photo grins from
the stands; perhaps one day you'll mount his throne.
Inside this tent, you're clapped, the rising star.
Out there in the streets, they still don't know who you are.

Later poems pick up the unheard voices theme. “The Suicide Bomber’s Daughter,” now an adult, watches a video left by her late father, who says,

'These men you are seeing for the first time
today, are your uncles, brave and unselfish
soldiers. I don't want, but I have to
leave you and your mother. When you
watch this, and are grown up, you will understand.'

It’s left for the reader to figure out whether the daughter does indeed understand or whether she merely feels the loss of someone selfish enough to abandon her and leave her mother with the burden of raising her alone.

Overall The Fragile Bridge demonstrates Merryn Williams’ exacting, attentive concern for voices that are normally unheard. She uses craftsmanship to skilfully build poems with integrity that are readable and easy to identify with.