Feb 1 2023
Poetry review – MOON JELLYFISH CAN BARELY SWIM: Pat Edwards welcomes a thoughtful and wide-ranging collection by Ness Owen
Picture jellyfish, their delicate bodies floating in water, their marooned bodies left on the beach as the tide draws back. Ness Owen uses this captivating image to great effect in her compelling collection that invites you to read from cover to cover in one sitting. It is also a collection the reader can return to and want to re-read, such is the range of style and language. If there is an over-arching theme it is maybe that many life lessons can be found in observing the sea and the shoreline. However, don’t be fooled by this simple message, rather marvel at the complexity and ambition of the writing.
The collection is divided into four sections and, in the first, I was immediately transported back to my own childhood in Dorset, and to field trips while I was studying for Botany and Zoology ‘A’ levels. The reader is literally immersed in the sea, gently drawn into the beauty and danger of tides, invited to observe the constant presence and power of the ocean. I enjoyed the subtle way in which Welsh phrases are woven into the text; this felt as organic and natural as the language and Ynys Môn setting itself. (There are useful notes regarding many of these phrases at the back of the book, so no one needs to feel excluded.)
The first section echoes the title of the collection and is redolent with childhood memories and references to the vulnerability of the young. It sets the scene in terms of the poet’s obvious love of the coastal environment, but does so with an acute awareness that there is fragility all around.
How do you unlearn near drownings, life flashing, calling you back to the womb?… …to swim fast you must first swim slow.
The second section, “Storm Tides”, continues the theme of reminiscence and reflection. As with all the poems in the collection, lines take varying shape on the page, by turns thin, robust, scattered. Where the poet seeks to warn the reader of life’s challenges and obstacles, she does so without preaching, offering sea-spun wisdom:
Reach out your arms, lean back, scream at the stars, and remember, this day you learn to float.
In ‘Disturbing the Artist’ the poet visits the mural, The Hall of Illusion, by Edward Povey, which is housed at Bangor University in North Wales. The mural depicts all manner of troubled people young and old, a hell-like dystopian scene, the poet seeking to remind us that we could so easily be amongst this frightening throng:
Linger here behind him, hungry for any story that isn’t yours.
We also find in this section the playful yet telling ‘Five lessons in the art of saying No’, in which the poet describes the mouthing of the word ‘no’. She gives us thin clues as to what she is saying no to, hints at being denied the right to speak her mother tongue, but also implies that no is an important retort we should all master at times. It’s an intriguing poem with an interesting construction and wonderful ambiguity.
Section three, “Captive of the Currents”, is probably the one that most chimed with me. Deeply topical and political, each poem voices protest and poses important questions, especially for those of us who live and work in Wales. ‘A Failure in Murmuration (Ynys Môn Votes Blue)’, uses the strange phenomenon of starlings dropping from the sky as a metaphor for the catastrophe of the ward voting Tory for the first time since 1983. It is not uncommon for significant numbers of birds to drop dead in this way and for the blame to be assigned to farmers spreading chemicals, errors of judgement by the birds themselves, freak weather, numerous other causes. The poet masterfully contemplates what could possibly have prompted such an unexplained electoral swing, concluding “Nature is cruel”.
The poems in this section give voice to how and why we should protest and exercise our democratic rights. ‘Cofiwch’, which translates as ‘Remember’, references the drowning of villages in order to create reservoirs providing water to far-off places. In ‘Notes on a Vowel Hungry Language’, the poet uses a clever layout to rehearse the argument for equal parity for Welsh and English:
Tonight, I’ll sit watching the setting of a stubborn sun, raise a glass and switch from one language to another.
The final section, “Life in the Water”, is a mix of the present with some of the reminiscence of section two; a melding of the natural world with the grim reality of everyday life. The poet uses some beautiful imagery such as the sublime “the orchestra of scents” in her poem ‘Petrichor’. This language clashes and collides with that used to remind us that the goats, normally resident on the Great Orme, came down into the near-silenced streets of Llandudno during lockdown to “take back what was theirs”. Other poems explore our change of habits and priorities during the dark days of Covid, and how fragile our mental health became. Recovery and resilience were often helped by connecting with the natural environment. In ‘Ffynnon Gwenfaen’, there is healing to be found in the “bubbling spring” water and in “milky stones warm in our palms”.
Never far from the poet’s agenda is her diligence in posting warnings. ‘Five Minutes to Spare?’ lists some of the things you can do in five minutes, the time it takes for a woman to walk home. However, in this instance, the warning is for us to:
Keep alert keep to the well-lit keep your house keys in your hand. (five-minutes-from-home)
‘Da Bo Chi’, meaning ‘goodbye’, is the last poem in the collection. It muses on the fact that life is short and precious and, like the Voyager 1 craft travelling through space, we will soon “splutter into silence”.
Throughout the collection, the poet takes risks, relishes collisions and uneasy contrasts. She keeps the reader on their toes, but seeks to treat them as confidante and friend. There really is something to excite every taste because the poet has such skill and technical grasp of form and phraseology. The writing feels fresh, inclusive and wise, a really lovely blend of the good things that poetry can bring to the intellect and to the senses.