Jan 15 2024
Poetry review – FALLING AND FLYING: Pat Edwards finds a new collection by Jeff Phelps to be a rewarding read
In the opening poem of his new collection Phelps takes us to the world of an eighteenth century showman whose stunt high up on a church spire ends his life at the age of just twenty eight. Like the ‘crowds who have come to goggle/as if his life was cheap’, we witness his daring and his downfall. In the next poem it is the showman’s wife who wraps ‘his shattered bones’, feels ‘flightless, wholly downed’ without him. She knows now that it just wasn’t worth losing him for ‘so few’ coins.
These two poems, stark and surprising, epitomise the title of the collection and dwell on the observation that life can be at one moment the adventure of flight, and the next the tragedy of falling. The poems explore these themes through a wide range of familiar tropes including the myth of Icarus, our obsession with air travel and how we marvel at the flight of birds.
Phelps is fascinated by our passage through time and he charts our journey by referencing ancient words, practices, and artefacts, noting how we can misinterpret them or only see them through a modern lens. In “An Avebury Stone”
each flint-axed face is a message nobody remembers how to read.
Perhaps the moon is the only truth, the only constant across the years: even one which was man-made and hung in a cathedral ‘was everything at once’. Phelps continues to show how mankind is bound to the past by giving us poems about the natural world: rivers, birds, trees, seasons. Each one considers the ephemeral against the permanence of the the natural environment. A kingfisher appears on the scene, just ‘a flick of blue between banks’. The rings of an old tree speak of events witnessed ‘HERE’: a tragedy, a summer, lovers, and the storm that eventually topples it. The poet not only conjures personal reminiscence but also offers a gentle warning that the planet is getting warmer and is ‘a world dazzled by power’.
Buildings and churches interest our poet, all holding echoes of those who built them, worshipped in them, worked and laboured in poor or dangerous conditions, ‘stones remembering us slowly’.
Phelps uses both free verse and form to suit his subject matter. “Washing Line” is a lovely little sonnet in praise of the enduring simplicity of the clothes line. I love his use of the phrase ‘come to terms with’ in the opening line, as if the poet accepts the domestic, the mundane about this laundry device ‘where clothes/soak up weather then fly out in the wind like spinnakers, helming the garden into the day’. This sonnet acts as a bridge into a section of more personal poems about childhood, growing up and parenthood. Each is rich with rather gorgeous imagery: making ‘a staircase’ from books; living in ‘the still-falling dust of the second war’; Dylan Thomas pencilling ‘himself in margins/of a beer-marked chicken-boned boathouse’; stories that we try ‘for size like hats plucked/from pegs’.
The final poems in the book form a sort of manifesto, a philosophy for life, as Phelps shows his humanity, his empathy, and tolerance. The poet suggests to us that being different, being a stranger, having political views, trying to express ourselves through poetry, are all just part of life’s rich fabric. I sense the poet winking at us, a twinkle in his eye,
Now I’m born again and almost lucid, yet the victory is hollow somehow. I used to be The Cowboy. God knows who I am now.
This collection is written with warmth and craft. It deserves both close reading and also reading in full in order to appreciate the careful ordering and flow. These are poems that are often informative, always thought-provoking and sometimes reflective. There are ideas and observations that stay with the reader long after they have finished reading. It’s impossible not to come away with lines that resonate and – something I personally find increasingly important – feeling trusted as a reader to get all the ‘feels’ for a poem without the need for over-complicated tricks and flummery.