London Grip Poetry Review – Ruth Bidgood


Poetry review – CHOSEN POEMS: D A Prince welcomes this careful selection of Ruth Bidgood’s poems compiled by Merryn Williams


Chosen Poems 
Ruth Bidgood  
(with a memoir by Merryn Williams)
Shoestring Press, 2024. 
ISBN 978-1-915553-48-5

Ruth Bidgood died in 2022, just short of her hundredth birthday. Merryn Williams, a close friend and fellow poet, provides an extended introduction to these ‘chosen’ poems in her brief memoir. What, I wondered, is the difference between ‘chosen’ and ‘selected’, the words almost synonymous yet not quite the same. Is there something more personal in the idea of ‘chosen’, as though the contents list has come out of friendship and shared life? Against this, ‘Selected’ feels more like ‘best of’, or ‘greatest hits’.

First, some key background details. Born in South Wales, Bidgood was a Welsh poet whose language was English. Her father was Welsh and Welsh-speaking (a minister in the Church in Wales), her mother a former elementary school teacher was English. An Oxford graduate, Ruth Bidgood married in 1946. With three children, her life — as Williams describes it — ‘was much like that of any educated housewife in the Home Counties.’ A second home in Mid Wales at Abergwesyn (‘a cheap corrugated iron bungalow’ is how Williams describes it) was bought in 1964 and seems to have been the trigger for her own poetry. She began submitting to magazines in1967. Her first collection, The Given Time, appeared in 1972 and after her divorce (in 1974) she moved permanently to Abergwesyn. This small village is at the heart of her poetry.

The bibliography lists sixteen collections between 1972 and 2019. In choosing from these Merryn Williams has presented the poems in roughly chronological order, although without any indication of date of publication. At first I’d wanted this information but then realised it was irrelevant. Bidgood’s poetic voice is as consistent as her themes: a landscape she knows well; the Welsh people and their relationships within this close-knit stable community away from the major centres of tourism; and a sense of history. All these are combined with a commemoration of the dead and the ways they have contributed to the present. Darkness and light in many forms, literal and metaphorical, play across these poems.

“Burial Path”, an early poem, holds many of her themes. Written in the voice of a widower, recalling how his wife’s coffin is carried over the mountains to the burial ground, it maps named places over the stoicism of grief.

When we carried you, Siân, that winter day
over four rivers and four mountains
to the burial place of your people,
it was not the dark rocks of Cwm-y-Benglog
dragged down my spirit,
it was not the steepness of Rhiw’r Ych
that cracked my heart.

Straightforward statements and simple vocabulary: these characterise Bidgood’s poetry, along with emotion that is held close, within. The burial requires community spirit: the men, in teams of four, carried the coffin for twelve miles to the churchyard. It was ‘… pride in an old ritual well performed’. The ‘… weight of death’ only surfaces when the widower urges his companions to travel home ahead

Now as I went down Rhiw’r Ych alone,
and turned west over the ford of Nant-y-Neuadd,
I knew there was only darkness waiting
for me, beyond the crags of Cwm-y-Benglog.
It was then my heart cracked, Siân, my spirit
went into that darkness and was lost.

In “All Souls” Bidgood makes a memorial for those whom she knew, not by name but — in country habit — by the names of their mountain farms. Here she is the walker, ‘from the small glow of my banked fire/ into a black All Souls’,’ looking up from the road into the hills.

The road curves. Further along
a conversation of lights begins
from a few houses, invisible except as light,
calling to farms that higher in darkness
answer still, though each now speaks
for others that lie dumb.

Lit windows are all that is visible of the isolated farms, tiny specks of light against the dark hillside. This is both visual and aural: the lights are ‘a conversation’ and they are ‘calling’. Bidgood continues this connection to the final lines

For them tonight when I go home
I will draw back my curtains, for them
my house shall sing with light.

Fire, the hearth, warmth, light: these are the elements of friendship, celebrated in familiar homes. It’s this ordinariness that Bidgood inhabits and examines within the context of ‘…this rush-ridden valley’ (“Thirst”). She knows and writes of the paths, tracks and waterways but not with sentimental attachment. “Felling-machines” describes the uprooting of spruce trees, the unloved commercial crop planted to be ripped out after thirty years: ‘I just wished/ their silly bare skinny crammed-together trunks,/ with the engine of death swinging again/ towards them, would stop reminding me/ of something human, doomed.’ In “Polluted” the spring water turns grey-yellow and even when it returns to sweetness it leaves ‘dregs of doubt, residual fear.’ Tourists (walkers) arrive with their ‘wishful imaginings’ about staying longer — and leave. “Sheep in the Hedge” shows how a ‘woolly maniac’ resists human help

This is no mild and never-never sheep,
but a heavy wild thing, mad with fright,
catapulting at you from a noose of brambles,
hurtling back into worse frenzy of tangles.
Don’t imagine you are welcome.

Bidgood was an early enthusiast for found poems, using historic texts. Again these are poems of ordinariness: “Edward Bache advises his sister” shows how well-intentioned advice can sound close to Polonius’ address to Laertes. There is more directness in “Grievance: Alice Owen to her parents, 20 May 171”’ in which a young woman in service — and worn down by drudgery — pleads with her mother to stop asking for her meagre earnings, used to support an indolent brother. There is no nostalgia here for the past, only a recognition of hardship.

But for all her closeness to her Welsh home, Bidgood recognises what it is to be an outsider, especially where language divided her family. “Siân Fach” explores, via a fading photograph of her grandmother, the effect of language from both sides. This isn’t just Welsh versus English but also North Wales versus South Wales. Embedded social prejudice underlies this family history. Bidgood’s mother was ‘… her English daughter-in-law’ whose infrequent visits to her husband’s family met with

Always a huddle of Welsh
chuntering in corners, family talk
never fully translated, sounding

That’s North Wales — and never underestimate the significance of Wales’ geography. However, Ruth Bidgood’s parents had settled in South Wales —

… her family’s roots were plunged
into warm coaly earth of the South,
with its more manageable hills
and uncensorious jumble of language. 

I wonder how much Welsh Ruth Bidgood acquired during her (Mid Wales) life. There’s no indication in this collection of poems, only a sense of being an observer, slightly apart. This question interests me perhaps more than it should: I grew up as one of the English-speakers in a predominately Welsh-speaking family, and recognise the divisions created inadvertently by language and usage, even in the warmest of families.

Chosen Poems represents Ruth Bidgood’s work well. Her linguistic spareness suits the undramatic landscapes of her chosen corner of Wales and her recognition of social and cultural continuity in this relatively isolated area, with its continual struggle to make a living from the land. She acknowledges the older spiritual presences, the churches falling into disrepair, the way an empty farmhouse reverts to broken stones overgrown with hawthorn. Merryn Williams has ensured that Ruth Bidgood and her poetry will last.