May 18 2023
Poetry review – HAIL MARYS: James Roderick Burns explores an intriguingly-themed collection by Pat Edwards and finds himself wanting more
There is something interesting about books with an intriguing premise (and this short collection, or long pamphlet, certainly qualifies): how much of the underlying conceit do we need to see before we both understand the author’s intentions, and see them realised fully enough to judge the work a success on its own terms?
Poetry collections which are simply that – an honest slab of a poet’s latest work – and not burdened with any overt, or subterranean, pattern, governing idea or obsession, can be read and assessed simply on the strength of each poem. How does it work? Does this poem build on the next, and the next, towards something larger and more resonant – a new direction for that particular poet, for instance – or are there holes and softnesses, here and there; in short, does the collection have legs?
For books with an unusual conceit – in Pat Edwards’ case, every poem within Hail Marys describing, celebrating or problematising a well or lesser-known Mary, from contemporary figures to historical and religious women, and sometimes both at the same time – the reader’s task is slightly different, and I would argue, more difficult.
Is the idea of a book of Marys original, valid, compelling? All of the above. Is the book well-written and varied, nicely produced, clean in the reading? Again – it certainly is. Are the different Marys, from periods of history or cultures with which the reader in the 21st century west might not be acquainted, properly set in context so the poem itself need not labour, but can sing? Absolutely. But when we stand back to answer the questions raised by the collection’s underlying premise, things become a little murkier.
Take the historical Marys, for instance. Though the collection begins with a moving and deeply-personal exploration of the poet’s own child (“before the spark you were nothing … and now we must name you … so you are distinct, recognisable”) there is a run of biblical (or at least double-imaged biblical) Marys, resounding through contemporary experience, suggesting a dive backwards into the past before moving up towards the present in a roughly chronological scheme. The poet has obviously anticipated this reading, and aside from very interesting doubling of historical characters, makes sure to undercut its presumed trajectory with lines that disrupt any easy timebound reading.
In ‘Children, my children’, which in three short stanzas delves into the complexities of ideas of motherhood through the lens of Mary Shelley, Edwards celebrates the radical potential of each new generation of beings, filled with possible good and evil:
Our children march out into the world, electric, charged with changing things. They are wired, fragrant with our dreams, ready to ruin everything.
It is a poem starkly at odds with a presumed ‘darkness of history into light of the present’ narrative, or even one simply tasked with recovering lost Marys, women plunged into shadow by their more famous contemporaries, then given the stage at last.
In writing a book with fewer than 25 pages of text – another conundrum: is this a pamphlet, or collection? – Edwards has so far produced something subtle and resistant to prediction.
Nor are the poems themselves, line by line, in any way subservient to an overall theme, as sometimes work is within collections dominated by a strong motif. Take the defiant refrain of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, the woman who practised smallpox inoculation prior to Edward Jenner, taking a stand against death and male stubbornness in ‘Lady Mary inoculates her young son in 1718’: “No death for you my tiny boy, not this good day.”
Or the lovely, worked images of ‘Tredegar Time’, a celebration of Mary Elizabeth Davis who fundraised for the town clock which now commemorates her:
Here time was once measured entirely in iron, ticking along powered by bars and rods and rails. Seconds were smelted, hours blasted, days soon abandoned, converted into heritage sites for tourists and school trips.
Or the transformation of the foodbank worker in a poem exploring the acidic changes wrought in women’s perceptions, perhaps whole outlooks, by the experience of grinding poverty:
She is turning into an avatar in my game of what’s for dinner. She has grown wings and moves on monstrous metal legs. She makes a noise like a giant tin-opener, wrenches away lids. (‘The lady down the food bank seems quite nice’)
And yet, in the face of all the positives within Hail Marys, some difficulties remain. They are, to be sure, positive difficulties, and the main one is, why don’t we see the Marys conceit played out to its fullest extent – in essence, to see the project through? Edwards says in the dedication, somewhat bafflingly, “For all the Marys, especially the many, many more I could have written about – maybe next time”.
Why not now? The length of the current volume leaves us stranded between an intriguing pamphlet, where the reader gets the drift but understands that for reasons of space, the work can’t stretch to a full exploration of its theme, and a full collection where it is worked out in all its complex dimensions. The current ‘collectionlet’ doesn’t quite deliver the latter, but goes far beyond the former. (It is also priced more towards the collection than the pamphlet end of things.)
I hope that this review doesn’t discourage anyone from reading Hail Marys – it is certainly worth reading, and lingers long in the memory. But there’s also a little itch for more that remains.
Perhaps Infinity Books and Pat Edwards could deliver a future, expanded edition, which lets the full scheme shine as we know it can?