London Grip Poetry Review – Rae Howells


Poetry review – THIS COMMON UNCOMMON: Pat Edwards identifies with poems by Rae Howells which reflect the tension between preservation of wild spaces and the genuine need for housing development


This Common Uncommon 
Rae Howells
ISBN 978-1-914595-90-1

As we open this book we are straight away presented with a stark reminder that many things we hold dear – relationships, old buildings, institutions, and indeed wild places – can feel so ordinary, familiar, everyday, as to be easily taken for granted. Rae Howells cautions us to look, be present, fully experience these things and even fight for them, especially when suddenly their existence is threatened.

Let’s start with the beautifully moody cover painting by Mike Crafer. The dominance of swirling clouds mixed with the threat of grey, hanging over the rust tones of the common, are at the same time gorgeous, wild and unpredictable. This sets the scene for the poetry to come, divided as it is into sections under headings taken from the work of John Clare. The poems are a rallying cry for Howells’ beloved local West Cross Common which is destined to become a housing development. In the opening poem ‘stand’, with its run-on title, we are urged to “stand and listen”, particularly to “listen for the things you can’t hear”. These include the myriad flora and fauna, as well as planners rustling their papers, money talking and “diggers storming up the hill”.

Howells explores the word ‘commonplace’ and notes how it often represents the “extraordinary ordinary”. She has an acute awareness that “uncommon wonders/are common as muck”, so easily overlooked. Howells becomes the birds, the promise of seasons, and in ‘Common nights’ imagines revellers making their way home to the near-by council estate. The common keeps watch, “ivy is surveillance,/ eavesdropping”.

There follow poems horrific in what they envisage as possibilities if the planners get their way regarding the common. The thought of fire “roasting her frogs and slow worms” clearly sees the place as female. This is extended in the idea of the common as a mother or as a woman “stretched too thin”, even “as an old woman at the bus stop”. Such imagery, deliberately I sense, evokes something of the same visceral reaction we might have when we hear of women and children hurt in conflict.

Following the imagined destruction, Howells considers ‘A living autopsy of Clyne Common’, which is in the Gower Peninsula not far from West Cross. Part of this common has been turned into a golf course, but the poet looks for signs of life. The poem very cleverly follows the process of an autopsy: the body “splayed out”; areas peeled back; “the opened stomach”; “signs of violence”. However, “the lungs still stutter…butterflies burst into life”.

Howells works hard to think about what it is that makes her beloved common so important. Maybe it is the way it holds and stores water, or the various pathways used by small mammals, snakes, humans, bramble, birds. Of course, it’s a bit of a waste land too, a junkyard with old sofas where kids may be up to no good. She can understand why some people might think development would be a better use of the space. This first section of the collection ends with the irony of the place becoming a rather useless museum, everything half-hearted; this Howells way of describing the agony of not knowing how the planning decision will go, and everyone waiting to hear if the developers will move in. The stalemate only serves to prolong the pain, the common still there holding “us fast/to the wild, no matter how we pull away”.

The second section begins by looking at arguments about how the infrastructure could support additional housing, but Howells reminds us how resilient and persistent nature can be, going as far as imagining the creatures invading all our modern shops and houses, an adder popping into the sweet shop or even trying “the Chinese takeaway instead”, until he realised “he had left his wallet in his other skin”. But beyond this brief humour, the warning:

No common, no fairwood, no Clyne.
Your green gone and the world lonely
and built of absences.

Section three is a nostalgic – but never over-sentimental – look back at the past life of the common: drovers, gypsies, soldiers doing World War digging drills, bird watchers, dog walkers, forgotten farms. These poems have a warmth and poignancy. The common was larger back then and has already experienced some development. A man called John remembers:

can open him up like a book, each leaf unfolding a layer of what came before
houses, before Gonhill and Bettsland and Cross Acre and Cedar,
the swallowed-up fields…
                                                      … What is left is shard, a splinter of
what was there before. 

The final section is a fine romp through all the natural glory of the common – perhaps even a last look in case it really does all vanish: the wildflowers; birds; insects; polecat; worts, grasses and ferns. This is glorious nature writing redolent with colour, texture, smell. I very much admired the poem ‘Bogbean’:

Here she is, star flowered
but unshaven, a blind whiskery
woman with white hair shining,
and the broadest, kidney grin,
pointing out her peat stalls
and welcoming us in.

Many readers of this book will undoubtedly know and love this common and fear for its survival. Many, like me, will not be so familiar with it. However, I suspect we all know threatened wild spaces local to us, and share the deep concern that our need for housing may one day overtake our perhaps greater need to conserve rare and special habitat. Howells has written something worth reading, something driven by both her intense love of this place and her understanding that once such a place is lost, there is the dreadful, empty permanence about its passing:

List the absences: the lost, the missing. Soon
you will not be here to notice, either.
Your eyes closed on the world and hard, like coins
& I wonder if we will have learned anything.