forty-one: Gwyneth Lewis, Parables and Faxes

Apologies for such a delayed post. It’s quite frustrating, actually, as I loved this collection and have been dying to write about it ever since I finished it, the week before last.

I first came across Gwyneth Lewis via her ‘cheerful book about depression’, Sunbathing in the Rain, which is a brilliant memoir of her own experience of the black dog, and which gave me a real appetite to go on and read her poetry. Two years later, I’ve finally read her first collection in English (a Welsh poet, she’s written alternately in Welsh and English), Parables and Faxes.

It certainly lived up to the humane, beautiful promise that was hinted at in Sunbathing in the Rain. For me, it combined a certain looseness and obliqueness – and beauty – that is what I look for in poetry, with a use of form and rhyme that gives you an ‘in’. (One thing I’ve certainly learnt from this year’s experiment is more about my own taste.)

I loved the lightness of Lewis’s tone – there’s a real playfulness alongside a sober taking in of all the beauty in the world. ‘The Hedge’ is totally brilliant in its absurdity and humour, telling the story (in terza rima) of a woman who, getting stuck in a hedge while rooting around for her stash of booze, ends up with the whole hedgerow attached to her, ‘heavy and formal as a wedding train’. There are some exquisitely surprising lines and a totally outrageous sense of flamboyance to the whole thing. I was hooked.

The two sequences ‘Illinois Idylls’ and ‘Six Poems on Nothing’ honed in, for me, on what Lewis does so well, and the vision that so captivated me: looking at the edges of things to see what’s really happening, from a landscape reforming itself after an evening of ‘disintegration’, to a pond ‘full to the brim of itself’, to the ‘good place’ that an Aunt and Uncle provide, and ‘those events that the centre ignores:’ –

small branches falling, the slow decay
of wood into humus, how a puddle’s eye
silts up slowly, till, eventually,

the birds can’t bathe there. I admire the edge;
the sides of roads where the ragwort blooms
low but exotic in the traffic fumes… (III, ‘Six Poems on Nothing’)

Like all of my favourite poets this year, Lewis has an eye for the small things, the things of a specific time and place that end up opening your eyes to a wider, timeless world. Is it a sort of humility of vision? A kind of tender observation of life that is clearsighted and neither sentimental nor cynical, finding out the beauty at the heart of things that are not especially beautiful in themselves.

And then there are the two sequences ‘Welsh Espionage’ and ‘Parables & Faxes’ (‘a saint from the east/and a saint from the west’). It’s such an amazing collection, with its eyes on language, place, wisdom, spirituality… totally compelling. Highly recommended.

Favourites were ‘The Hedge’, 5, 7, 9 and 11 from ‘Illinois Idylls’, the whole of ‘Six Poems on Nothing’, IV, V, VII, XIII and XXI from ‘Parables & Faxes’. Here is 4: Homecoming from ‘Illionis Idylls’: –

Two rivers deepening into one;
less said, more meant; a field of corn
adjusting to harvest; a battle won

by yielding; days emptied to their brim;
an autumn; a wedding; a logarithm;
self-evidence earned, a coming home

to something brand new but always known;
not doing, but being – a single noun;
now in infinity; a fortune found

in all that’s disposable; not out there, but in,
the ceremonials of light in the rain;
the power of being nothing, but sane.

I feel like I want to pin this up on my wall, as a manifesto of sorts…

Parables and Faxes, Gwyneth Lewis (1995, from Chaotic Angels: Poems in English, Bloodaxe, 2005)

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