Oct 16 2023
Poetry review – SEASONS IN THE SUN: Rennie Halstead admires Annest Gwilym’s poems exploring memories and set in the Welsh landscape
Annest Gwilym lives in north west Wales, near the Snowdonia National Park and is a native Welsh speaker. This is her third collection of poetry, an engaging mix of memory, a love of nature and a passion for her native Wales.
The collection opens with a number of poems of childhood. In “Seasons in the Sun” Gwilym revisits memories of an unidentified relative, who lived ‘… in a net-curtained house /with anaemic pot plants and china figurines’. The children were not well behaved, rebelling against any authority, real or perceived:
We were no angels: girls that slipped melting ice lollies through the dark mouths of post boxes, […] danced the can-can in her bloomers and best chapel hat rummaged from her bedroom
Despite the trials of tolerating her young charges, she is full of kindness, taking the children ‘in her shiny black Morris Minor, / to the candy floss paradise of Benllech / with its wide apron of sand and donkeys.’ while the trendy and fashionable teenager lit up the beach in her ‘beloved yellow towelling hot pants, / while “Seasons in the Sun” played / from everyone’s open door.’
There’s a similarly affectionate portrait of Great Aunt May in “Always in Lavender”. Despite her appearance, ‘Buck-toothed as a donkey, whiskery, / her home was a cabinet of wonders’ and was famous as ‘the smartest woman in the village. / Clothes from Bon Marché in Pwllheli’.
Best of the childhood poems, for me, was the enchanting “The Sea Captain’s Daughter” who was ‘raised on tales of rounding the Horn, / the interminable blue vastness of oceans, / in a house full of Orientalia ‘. She falls in love, an impossible romantic:
My soul was a poet’s, a poet my love. A distant ship on the horizon, he sailed past me, parting the waters.
And doomed to be disappointed, like all dreamers, the romance comes to nothing:
As winter comes again, his death early in the year, I am left with cavernous nights, white mornings of mist and desolation,
Leaving childhood memories behind, Gwilym gives the Wallace Stevens classic Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird a particular seaside twist in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Seagull”. Despite a long standing dislike of these particular birds, Gwilym manages to overcome my prejudices with a series of well observed and well expressed descriptions. The poem is written in triplets. I particularly liked the capture of the arrogance of these air pirates:
II Beneath the sign DON’T FEED THE SEAGULLS The seagulls feed themselves
and the capture of the birds’ innate aggression in:
IX Killers from the egg Each seagull knows How to catch a pike
Prejudices aside, the poet captures the beauty of the seagull in flight:
VIII When skies are violent A seagull’s muscular wings Hold up moisture-rich clouds
And despite my prejudices, there is a great sadness to the last stanza:
XIII Alone on a beach, a child watches As a dead seagull’s wing flaps Quietly in the breeze.
In “Blodeuwedd Does the Dishes”, Gwilym takes us into the realms of Welsh folklore. There’s always room to debate how much the poet needs to tell the reader about the backstory of a poem, and I believe poems should stand on their own without need of explanatory notes. In this case, some background seems essential to understand fully what the poet is trying to say. Blodeuwedd is a figure from the great tale of Welsh folklore, the Mabinogi. She is created by magicians from the flowers of broom, meadowsweet and oak to be the wife of the hero Lleu Llaw Gyffes who has been cursed never to have a human wife. The name Blodeuwedd is translated today as owl. The opening stanza references Blodeuwedd’s mythological creation:
She stands at the kitchen sink, fingers puckering in lukewarm water. Her hair is as frothy as meadowsweet, golden as broom, silky as sunlight.
The strangeness of her magical creation runs through her:
her bones are limestone, her eyes are haunted houses, her blood peaty mountain streams.
Bored by her husband’s frequent absence, she dreams of a lover; ‘the stranger in the meadow / that morning, with his full-moon eyes.’ The stranger seems ‘to hold a promise of unfettered days’ but Blodeuwedd remains true to her husband, at least for the moment:
At night she dreams of leaving this world of oven and hearth, slicing the midnight air as an owl, unseen, untamed, in silent joy,
Gwilym’s retelling of Blodeuwedd’s story doesn’t take us as far as the tragic end of this myth, the violence and death that follows the domestic imprisonment that Blodeuwedd is obliged to endure, and that resonates with stories of domestic violence in our own society.
There’s always a danger in reading too much into a poet’s work, of thinking that any poems that appear to contain a personal element are autobiographical. With a poet like Sharon Olds, confessional poetry is the key to her writing. It would be easy to fall into the trap of thinking “Days Like This to Be Read as Honey” is similarly autobiographical, especially as it is subtitled “For the Child I Never Had”. Autobiographical or not, Gwilym creates a beautiful poem that catalogues what any parent would hope to give a much loved child:
the honeydrip of low sun on the horizon; a cold that sugar-coats mountain tops, a moonsuck and sunstruck clock stuck at youth; four seasons in a day.
The sense of plenty, of gifts overflowing is echoed in the reference to a Caravaggio painting, ‘raining pomegranate seeds; / trap it all in amber.’ And there is a great sadness to the last couplet, a sense of loss that brings the imaginative flight of the poem’s imagery crashing to the ground in a dose of reality ‘And if you ever lived, / you could live it too.’
The theme of nature is never far away in Gwilym’s poetry. I particularly liked “Winter’s Breath”, the ‘snow-dust prophecy’ of the approaching season. In this dark waiting ‘Winter’s woods are antlered, dark, / fox-sharp, full of long, wolfish shadows’ and the coming season is:
a black and white country. The old know this: it strips flesh from trees, flowers, bones.
She returns to this theme in the final poem of the collection, “Sometimes at Twilight . . . “ Looking from her back door on a cool evening, she observes the ‘cormorants / that dry their wings / on the jetty’s end’ and ‘plants that grow / despite the wind’s salt charge.’ Meditating on what she sees, Gwilym remains:
Glad that in spite of poverty there are watery days of soft rain and poetry,
And in an appropriate reflection of much of the poetry that makes up this collection, she observes that:
the past that is always present beneath the surface of earth and our skin,
The collection is studded with beautiful lines, and, for me, the best poems have the personal element of memory or the rawness of nature and the Welsh countryside and coast.