Jul 8 2023
Poetry review – IN ORBIT: D A Prince is intrigued and even unsettled by the way Glyn Edwards deals with themes of grief and love
You may — like me — prefer to read a collection by starting with the first poem and proceeding steadily through to the end, letting the poems build to create their own unified world in your mind. If so, starting with the back cover would be a helpful entry point to Glyn Edward’s debut collection. In this complex and ambitious exploration of grief, loss, desire — all set within the larger world of night skies and an extended time scale — the poet moves between first-person viewpoints set at different points in time. To understand these viewpoints from the outset allows you to concentrate on the poetry as much as on the ‘narrative’.
It’s an unusual viewpoint, as the blurb explains: “The narrative shifts in time, moving from his teenage years to the present day when he himself has become a teacher, working alongside the man he mourns.” Few pupils return to their schools to teach, recalibrating their earlier student/teacher relationships. While this collection takes school life as its setting it is the range of forms and voices in Edwards’ elegiac writing that pull the collection together.
The opening poem, ‘elegy;’ suggests that these poems will be pared back, skeletal —
elegy is a book the last page wrested or left unwritten
Turning the page contradicts this. ‘She rang to say you’d collapsed’ is the first in a series of eight prose poems spread through the collection —
The fire exit doors were jammed. The paramedics struggled to get the stretcher out properly, she said. I saw your lean breath leave your mouth, charging the cold car park air. Your chest trembling like barbed wire in scant breeze. I looked away from the thought of you blue-lipped and half- dressed and dead as winter. […] She began to cry. And then so did I. Then she stopped and I couldn’t.
These poems describe the trajectory of the poet’s response to his colleague’s death. Read as a sequence — and it’s worth seeking them out to do this — they are the spine of the collection, a narrative beginning with news of death before turning to the past, to unspoken teenage desire for this teacher, and coping privately with grief. The inadequacy of a sympathy card, his excuses for extended absence from work, the power of memory to conjure physical detail: all these are worked into the prose poems.
Details, both visual and sensory, bring schooldays into focus, as in ‘Antipodes’
We are waiting in your shrunken classroom, warming our wet shoes on the growling pipes below the windowsill, drawing cocks in the condensation until you come in, later than usual, shake yourself dry like a damp dog and stare at a computer screen. Did you hear about the earthquake, Sir?
Field trips (‘Tombolo’) and school visits (‘Sun, Earth and Moon scale model: Oxford Natural History Museum’) reveal not only the scientific specifics but also intense schoolboy adoration.
and to watch you translate our lives into time, and to watch you transpose time into distance, and watch you lean so close to the glass that your head eclipses the painted earth, and its tiny textured moon, and to watch you.
The poems compress time, a feature that Edwards uses to fast-forward through the lives of his school mates, as in ’wish fulfilment as montage’. It’s a feeling we’d all recognise, that blink and those whom he knew as teenagers are suddenly men with the trappings of adulthood responsibilities —
… piano shelf photos: a wedding slow dance, a dog, a terrace garden up to its waist in snow, kids in uniform.
Edwards sets a poet’s life among such glimpses but the centre of the collection is his own way of getting through the anguish of grief and loss. The natural world is a consolation — ‘Blackbird’, ‘Smoots or’, and the poems about moon, stars and the skies. The phases of the moon give the title and a larger timescale for grief: “Six moons have passed since you died.” (“Moon phases as seen from Earth’).
Edwards’ ambition is shown in a variety of innovative structures, as though constraint is also a way of dealing with grief, an attempt to keep it within boundaries. ‘Parallel circuit’ is a wiring diagram with seven numbered prose notes while ‘Instead, I would look at Venus through my telescope’ has the opening line as a circle around the smaller print of a prose poem. ‘there is no excuse’ is in the shape of a human hand, based (as the notes tell us) on a painting by Shigeru Mizuki, a Japanese artist who lost an arm in a bombing attack. Layout of more conventional poems varies: some are right-justified while others have stanzas off-set across the page. It makes for a visually appealing collection. Perhaps the most successful is ‘Bird Drawings by CF Tunnicliffe’, a pattern poem in the form of a bird in flight. This poem is a test for the publisher, too: font size is reduced to keep the overall shape. All these work to reinforce the intensity of grief.
The collection, however, has an Afterword that contradicts its overall direction. Perhaps it is too easy to read this collection as a personal narrative: in poetry the first-person narrator is not necessarily the poet himself although the prose sequence threaded through this collection has a strong personal voice and the poems are about the loss of an individual — one person. The brief description on the cover, quoted at the start of this review, supports this. When the Afterword tells me that the characters are “fictional constructs” and that “The deceased teacher is, at most, an amalgamation of different teachers I have known and respected and admired” I feel I should adjust the way in which I’ve responded emotionally and critically not only to these poems but also to what has seemed to be factual content within them. It’s an unsettling conclusion to reach at the end of a collection that challenges the reader at many levels.
Yet the poems dealing with grief and how it affects us are powerful. The final stanza of ‘If one day you woke up and the Eiffel Tower was gone’ takes a fantastical proposition and brings it down to reality —
it’s because it’s gone — the iron that shaped the sky, the light, the spell — all gone, in no time at all, days, hours even, the city would begin the tiny acts of erasure all grievers do: understanding the dark; taking detours; forgetting.
Edwards is not afraid to address the large themes of grief and love, the “dark matter” of human lives.