Nov 11 2022
Poetry review – THE LITTLE HOURS: Stuart Henson surveys a comprehensive “new & selected” from Hilary Llewellyn-Williams
The Little Hours: New & Selected Poems Hilary Llewellyn-Williams Seren ISBN 9781781726624 174pp £12.99
You might describe Hilary Llwellyn-Williams as an eco-poet avant la lettre. Our interaction with the natural world is currently top of the political agenda, and we’ll soon be celebrating the first Michael Marks Environmental Poet of the Year. Yet if poets were not attuned to their changing environment who would be? Think of Clare, Wordsworth in his lofty way, RS Thomas, Ted Hughes… What Llwellyn-Williams has done over the past three or more decades is to bring a personal, feminine and Celtic sensibility to that tradition, beginning with The Tree Calendar in 1985.
I put my head in the bag of leaves and breathed green. Coarse sourjuiced crushed smell of wet summers, that sharp male taste: foliate-faced I sucked green with each breath, spaced-out on oak.
‘Oak’, from the title sequence, is sensory, rich without being showy, and it captures that tannin-taste that deer don’t like. It emerges from the world of the Green Man, and the calendar of the Celtic year that Graves explores in The White Goddess.
Wine from oak leaves is tawny, tastes dark and woody, midsummer evening fires, the sweet smoke of peat. It is strong, climbs down deep and blazes. It comes from the young growth: the tender pink-flushed clusters of new leaf offer themselves at a touch, break free in showers of droplets, stalked green and sapped like frankincense. You pour boiling water on the stripped leaves: they smell of fresh tea. The brew is bitter and brown: it could cure leather.
In poems like ‘The Gardener’s Daughter’, from her first Seren collection, the touch is sure and delicate, the focus on the subject-matter rather than the poet’s wit. That’s true, for example, in ‘The Trespasser’, which at one level is a paen to the joys of scrumping (‘Bold as a bird I pull the berries down’) but which incidentally—and all the more effectively—addresses the issue of second homes in rural and coastal communities.
The house is blind: no-one is living here, yet I am trespassing. Each summer the owners come for a week or two, cut grass, clean windows, stare out from their gate.
The language is simple enough, but consider what that last phrase implies about ownership and vacancy. The poet styles herself as a vigilant wood-kern, living ‘by here’ in poverty. ‘What the hedges grow, / what’s in the hills, I take back for my children.’ There are narcissi, blackcurrants, apples, and images of the river singing and the snow that ‘sweeps the lawn / smooth for the prints of foxes.’ … ‘Each year the trees / step forwards round the house: I notice that.’
Yes, it’s the noticing that poets must do. And the noting-down.
Hilary Llewellyn-Williams’ environmentalist credentials are even more directly evident in her Book of Shadows (1990):
So it shall be someday, when the polar ice melts, and expanding oceans lift over the land again. Sea licking those hills into islands and promontories… (‘To The Islands’) I think the traffic worsens year by year just passing through. Rain’s harsher too: laced with acid and caesium, it fills the stream called Comely and the stream called Blossom. Nothing flourishes. (‘Brynberllan’)
It’s difficult to represent Llewellyn-Williams’ work without quoting whole poems, since typically they cohere subtly, interlacing their images—and they often deal with liminal, qualified emotions. The stanza from ‘Brynberllan’, above, is followed by this, the conclusion of the piece which has traced the demise of an apple orchard, and richly evoked its past.
Yet sometimes we’ll distil, between breath and breath, a taste of sweetness: yes, even now, a rustling of leaves, a blossom-drift. Between low flakes of October sunlight, treeshapes flicker: and evenings to the West bring cloud-landscapes rising like a range of wooded hills, a place of apple-orchards. Not here: beyond reach; elsewhere, forsaken, forfeited.
Did you pick up a slight onomatopoeic rustle of ‘sweetness’ and ‘leaves’, and the alliterative hints in ‘flakes’ and ‘flicker’—the line break deliberately catching you out in the rather lovely ‘low flakes / of October sunlight’? And how telling, those doubled line-spaces between breath and breath and ‘beyond’ and ‘reach’! Not flashy, but worthy of admiration.
Alongside her plain speaking, Hilary Llewllyn-Williams does like to be a bit witchy and folksy from time to time. ‘The Sealwife’ reworks beautifully the trope of that trans-species creature we know from tales of the northern selkies and stories like The Mermaid of Black Conch. The ‘Book of Shadows’ sequence itself offers the perfect context for her quasi-arcane interpretations of the world, channelling the spirit of sixteenth century seer Giordano Bruno:
This is magic: what I do. I have come to you with the world up my sleeve and heaven in my hat shuffling a clutch of pictures.
Occasionally her preoccupation with magic veers towards the cute, as in ‘Out with my Broomstick’ or in the title poem of Animaculture (1997). ‘Animaculture’ explores the notion of ‘gardening angels’, which I take to be one of those child-like mis-hearings like ‘bottled cherry angel’ that are too charming to resist. It’s risky, but she understands the truth of the assertion that no-one shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven unless it be as a little child—and she knows how dark the imagination of childhood can be. ‘Wise child, I trusted my own // right words, I knew the angel’s name, / and that death was part of the game.’
Hilary Llewellyn-Williams is particularly good on the joyful and sometimes heart-breaking relationship between a mother and her children as they grow, puzzle and assert their own selfhood.
The waterfall roars between them and me. Fluid, unbreakable, a closed gate of running glass through which they waver and stand beyond reach yet visible, mouthing excitedly, deafened by the sound of waterforms changing, exploding escaping, unstoppable, sweeping us all before it, downstream. (‘Behind the Waterfall’)
She’s also good at reading sermons in stones—as in ‘What Brynach Saw’.
Alone with his love, arms out to the sun like a heathen, he felt the wind lift and hold him aloft like the breath of God. From this height the world is beautiful. You carry it all in your hands, the little stonewalled fields, the sea leaping…
There’s an old joke (Was it Max Boyce?) that whilst Italian is the language of music and French is the language of love, Welsh is the language of Heaven. The heavenly virtue, I suspect, is as much in the landscape and the souls of the speakers as in the gutturals and the èlls. Llwellyn-Williams’ English, in Animaculture and beyond, is neither bardic nor Wordsworthian but it’s shot through with intimations of immortality, seeing, as Brynach did, ‘how angels in the hill / raise their stone wings for flight.’
Another current trend that she has anticipated is the centring of the poem on a sometimes quasi-fictional ‘I’—a kind of poet-ego, if you like. Many of her poems are written from a first-person perspective, though the ‘I’ for the most part seems to be a straightforward representation of the HL-W you might meet and converse with. My own preference is for the poems where the ‘I’ intrudes less or not at all. In ‘Making Landfall’ from her collection Greenland (2003) the consciousness is transmuted to a universal ‘you’:
One morning you wake to a difference in the touch of the air: somewhere a door is open… … coffee and motor oil fresh flowers and new-baked soil warm rub of concrete an onrush of green, an invasion of leaves and spices… … On such a morning you notice the birds – the shapes their bodies make in free flight
The richness of observation, and its slightly off-beat quality, is one of the reasons her work is refreshing. Even when a simile teeters on the brink of failing, it’s very often redeemed by its sheer bravado. A flock of homing-pigeons is released ‘like a handful of coins tossed / skyward by a lottery millionaire’. As an image it shouldn’t work. Coins are too heavy: they’d fall to earth and lie there helpless rather than wheeling away as pigeons do. But it’s the upward movement that Lewellyn-Williams wants to capture, the out-goingness of the gesture. And you’d forgive anything when your poet can pack half-a-dozen lines with metaphors like this:
now they are changed to steel, to airfix models painted and glued together flown synchronous and smooth as if pulled sideways by an invisible hand – the drill and hum of feathers all vibrating in unison, the drumroll of their hearts.
The Little Hours offers 111 pages of poems from her first four books, with a final three dozen of New Poems—from a difficult period of Hilary Llewellyn-Williams’ life. In this last section, there are memorials to her mother and to at least two of her friends: poems resting on quotations from the Psalms, the pattern of the canonical ‘hours’ and her ever-accurate rendering of the natural world. Crucial to this part of the book, however, is the sequence ‘A Long Goodbye’ which bears witness to the death of her husband, Tony, from Lewes Body Dementia in 2008.
It would be impossible to do this group of poems justice by selective quotation. Cumulatively they’re both dignified and deeply moving—in particular ‘A Separate Reality’ in which she uses Tony’s own notes describing the waking dreams or hallucinations that characterise the condition. To have lived through and beyond such pain might have knocked the hope out of any of us, but the New Poems end with the philosophical ‘Hens in the Yard’ and the optimistic ‘The Side Gate.’ The cover blurb suggests The Little Hours will win her a new generation of readers. It should.