Aug 6 2023
Poetry review – AFTER HASTINGS: Thomas Ovans reviews Merryn Wiliams‘ poetic impressions of the Covid years
It takes a certain kind of boldness to begin a collection with a poem channelling Wilfred Owen! But this is what Merryn Williams does in her new book After Hastings. She does not attempt an imitation of Owen’s style but simply allows herself to imagine the great war poet standing on the border of a neutral country and posthumously wondering what might have happened “if I’d had more sense” and walked across to safety while he still had the chance. He could have
sat in shirt sleeves reading the English papers for war news, occasionally finding some old friend’s name
But such speculation is futile: he must accept that “I am of my time” and his name is inevitably “carved on white stone, high in the heart of London”.
In a way this interesting poem is untypical of the rest of the book in being a fantasy. The back cover tells us that most of the poems were written during the pandemic and as such they tend to the factual rather than the speculative and deal with immediate observations or with the kind of random memories that probably arose for many of us as we spent those lockdown months in unaccustomed quiet and relative idleness. The book’s second poem ‘That Autumn’ seems – without explicitly saying what happened – to take us straight into the perils and anxieties of those Covid years as the speaker tells us “I thought I’d got over it, but I had not” and “I was back in a certain intensive care unit / whose doors had closed…” The third poem, by contrast, is one that escapes the worries of the present by venturing into recall of a past whose mysteries and crises are now (presumably) resolved and largely forgotten. ‘The Child’s Testimony’ begins
I was with my father at a banquet when the news came through that he had died. Men in evening suits sprang up, ecstatic, clapped and roared (while out there people cried).
As the poem continues it gives me the impression of being a child’s recollection of a real event; but I am not sure whether I am supposed to be able to guess the name of the notable figure whose death provoked such contrasting reactions.
In the poem we have just considered, Williams makes good use of the story-telling ballad form; and she continues to employ this quite frequently throughout the book. Which is appropriate because she is often telling stories about things that were happening around her in the lockdown years: things that could be seen through the window (“I saw my neighbour looking at the snow”); or observed on a TV screen (“The parties went on far into the night”); or ruefully reported in texts and phone calls (“This ring will go into the earth with her … I sort her clothes, cast lipsticks in the bin”).
But Williams also reports observations and communications made via more mysterious channels.
Some days I switch off the telephone … and ring you up, tell you (with lips just moving) the family news. Although the real phone’s dead and someone else has got your number, I can still activate the line inside my head. [‘Do not disturb’] … once, I’m sure, I heard his voice, tobacco-thickened but quite clear, that said, ‘No, Merryn, I am not here’. [‘Hallucinations’]
As already noted, we often revisit the past when the present offers limited opportunities. Williams finds poetry in unusual situations and events she has remembered or read about. Random facts about the town of Hastings generate several poems: the title poem refers to a major rockfall which prefigures a future which will see “the gracious Georgian terraces, the beach huts / be drowned, the crumbling castle overhead / collapse.” She contemplates this destruction with a philosophical “It might reach my old home, but I’ll be dead.” Some memories are more personal and gossipy – “Sorry to hear of your divorce. But glad / it wasn’t me you married” – while others are rather grim, startlingly so in ‘On Tuesday evenings’ which is an inner monologue of a British Home Secretary, in the days of capital punishment, as he considers last-minute appeals for clemency on the eve of an execution.
This is a very accessible collection, a varied compendium of impressions and recollections. Having opened with Wilfred Owen it concludes with two poems in memory of the Welsh poet Ruth Bidgood who died in 2022. ‘Elegy’ fits in well with one of the overall themes of the book in showing how contemporary communication channels can mean that serious news is conveyed in rather offhand fashion:
I learned of your death in a crowded seafront café between trains, flicking casually through my smartphone as everyone does.
Clearly Merryn Williams knows herself (and most of the rest of us) pretty well and has held up a small mirror to the Covid years in which we will probably catch a glimpse of ourselves.