Maggie Harris, On Watching a Lemon Sail the Sea (Cane Arrow Press, 2019, £10.00)
Hanan Issa, My Body Can House Two Hearts (Burning Eye Books, 2019, £9.99)
Glyn Edwards’s first collection has been greatly anticipated by those already familiar with his work. Vertebrae will not disappoint, full as it is of haunting, carefully-crafted poems. The structure is precise: 33 poems representing the 33 vertebrae, a framework which holds the collection firmly as a brace. In the opening poem, ‘The Land or Body Tide,’ where the poet and his wife await the results of an ultrasound, lines reflect the shape of the baby’s spine:
his body is bracing itself to absorb shock
she plots the thirty-three spinal vertebrae
they’re heavy enough to carry his mass
the atlas bone is where his skull rests
and the axis will allow his world to spin.
Their son’s progress is charted throughout the collection, often with sadness at his growing independence. In ‘What to do with his old clothes?’ Edwards remembers how they packed away each babygrow, weighing ‘the memory of him inside it.’ In ‘Backstroke,’ the poet holds his son tight:
And your arms, your back, boil with age.
Today I taught you how to grow away from me,
Yet here you are, being held, holding on.
We see Arthur birdwatching, collecting frogspawn, swimming, and in the final poem, ‘Marrow,’ now old enough to question his own mortality when he finds a swallow ‘unzipped beneath a rosebush.’ An acceptance of death, loss and the fragility of life underpins the collection, a seam of tenderness running through it like a spinal cord.
Edwards is a pilgrim, treading in others’ footsteps, yet carving new paths in the poetic landscape. It’s a brave poet who, in a first collection, is gutsy and skilful enough to write response poems while avoiding the trap of clumsy imitation. ‘Two Paths Diverge in a Yellow Wood’ comprises imagined responses from Thomas and Frost to ‘The Road Not Taken,’ Thomas’s ending with the conclusion that ‘it was not two roads you saw diverge but time/ Forcing open our friendship, forging my fate.’ This is bold, confident writing, Edwards demonstrating considerable mastery of form as well as content.
Edwards is also traveller and adventurer, whether driving to find Ted Hughes’s farmhouse, searching out Emily Brontë in the ‘tumbledown timbers’ on Haworth moors, or clambering up Sir John’s Hill, where ‘the path hangs loose as gossamer’ (‘The Birthday Walk’). These journeys of homage are couched in rich, resonant language.
At the heart of the book is communication, our interaction with humans and the environment, along with the struggle for language in which to express it. In ‘Night fishing,’ a pool becomes a bed at night, a pike the metaphor for those glimmers of inspiration so elusive to capture:
To trap it,
I’d force tired fingers down my throat
and catch the dense greengold gills
as they thrashed to be swallowed back
into a crypt of gut, then haul
it from my head in waking gloom
and wrap its snarl in puddled paper.
‘Lambing Language’ sees the poet wrestle with syntax and mutations, ‘carelessly/shitting accidents until soiled language/greys my coat and I am too stubborn/to wipe it away.’ ‘[B]lack words become trapped bats’ to his son in ‘Storm Arthur,’ while in ‘The Hide,’ the boy ‘breathed out birds/on the glass and coloured them in nature books.’ ‘Voicemail’ movingly describes finding an old message from his grandmother, where ‘This fragile voicemail, distorted/as distant radio,/becomes a monologue of your final days.’ So words link nature and humanity, and span the bridges between life and death.
A couple of poems perhaps don’t sit so comfortably within the structure Edwards has created. ‘Perce Blackborow Stowed Away on the Endurance’ was a poem I loved, but seemed a little too removed in subject and time-frame from the others. The tiny font size was also an uncomfortable read!
But these are deft, complex pieces, self- disciplined and polished. It is impossible not to love Edwards’s vivid imagery: ‘a fox’s secretive snarl and grainy bulb beak of a swan,/the polished fennel root of a rabbit’ (‘Marrow’). I look forward to reading much more from this distinctive voice.
For someone who has always loved the sheer exuberance of Maggie Harris’s work, On Watching a Lemon Sail the Sea is an absolute treat. This is a wonderful hug of a book. A meaty collection of 66 poems (her sixth), arranged into five geographical sections which reflect the places most important to her. From the first lines we are drawn to Harris’s warm, vibrant voice, full of the Caribbean rhythms of her childhood:
and I’m singing ‘You are my sunshine’
of my childhood across the sea of incubation
go Honey go
you self-contained cargo ship you
with your sealed citrus juices and pitted
panacea of seeds
braving the collision of tankers and illicit
This lemon is both cargo and vehicle, a potent metaphor which Harris uses to examine aspects of her Guyanan heritage, gifting her questions about rootedness and identity.
Harris has an artist’s eye for detail and colour. There are no insipid pastels here, but rather the bold, multi-toned palettes of Gaugin. The ‘Women Weaving’ work not in muted shades, but ‘patterns/embossed in cochineal, stabbed by quills/skein of silk, blood of herringbone.’ I particularly liked ‘On Not Being Frida Kahlo,’ with its graphic, turbulent imagery:
In this tale the children have hammered their
way out of her ribcage
like woodpeckers; they are ruthless and
shredding through tissue and bone until they
scatter the residue
into filaments of neon.
Displacement and alienation are central themes. If the lemon is cargo, then so is Harris as she wanders restlessly from place to place, searching for that ‘milltir sgwâr’ (‘square mile’) where she can feel at home. She is constantly aware of other dislocations. The ‘Victoria Amazonica,’ torn from its roots to be displayed in the Crystal Palace Exhibition; the trans- planted ‘Banana from Eden’ she lovingly cares for. At the ‘Garden Centre, Moylegrove,’ there is a ‘cultural gathering’ of plants, where ‘dialects jump like fireflies between the ginger and the canna’ until purchased, one by one, ‘bound for yet another/migration.’
My favourite section focuses on Guyana. Here Harris is at her most passionate, her writing full of the intimacy and sense of belonging she has been unable to find in Wales, where the chapel ‘does not care about hallelujahs from alien lands’ (‘Not Home’). In Guyana are vivid, larger-than- life characters from Harris’s childhood. Mrs Rosario, ‘in her balloon of heat on the daybed’; Cookie, at whose voice ‘the world stands still/the sunray pauses on the sill.’ Mavis, ‘pounding the foo-foo’,
tossing in the big guys(‘Caribbean Soup, 1959’)
eddo and cassava, wild thyme and pimento
left hand sprinkling, right hand pounding,
miming the words to Wooden Heart.
The dark underbelly is colonialism, slavery, and our collective amnesia about the past. Throughout is a sense of entrapment, of things wanting to be set free. Landscape is not always the trope of a ‘green and pleasant land’ but a place where history is conveniently buried. In ‘Driving Through Happy Valley,’ ‘pterodactyl claws/a compost of vixens’ lure the poet back to a Guyanese schoolroom where language sings of ‘Pict and Celt, Slave and shackles.’ ‘After Paradise’ is a garden of ‘sculptured lawns like/drawing rooms’ where we are invited to ‘smooth the rape of history/Tidy all the jagged edges, fallen leaves, the budding heads of un-named weeds/Pile them on the compost heap, watch them burn, then leave.’ From childhood stories full of pale heroines ‘pure as mythical snow’ to the funeral of the Governor-General where ‘the white was blinding,’ anger at these aspects of her heritage give the book real bite, sharp as acid-green limes in the market, making it a powerful and compelling read.
Having been set free in the opening poem, at the end the lemon is still travelling, accompanied now by:
a choir of coral and a pianist from New(‘A Tropical Depression’)
Orleans, and above them all, at perigee, a
and lemon supermoon lighting up the sea.
I, for one, will be watching the shoreline eagerly to see where it next lands up.
Children pulled from the rubble in Aberfan and Aleppo. A boy swollen with lead poisoning. A young Swedish ‘oracle girl’ pulling a sword from a lake. In My Body Can House Two Hearts, a remarkable debut pamphlet, Hanan Issa weaves a tapestry of history and myth around the two countries of her heritage. A Welsh/Iraqi poet, Issa’s writing celebrates the strength of women and their ability to affect both the cultural landscapes of the world and our connection to others.
These are persuasive, moving poems, where politics intertwines with the intimate and personal. ‘Lands of Mine’ begins with Baghdad, ‘Blazing rage and bullets,’ an attack on two mosques, and the poet’s ‘blinding hiraeth’ for ‘henwladfy mamau – the home I have loved halfly.’ But here too is her Welsh great-grandfather, ‘who breathed in coal dust as he/breathed out kindness,’ and her grandmother ‘Jean,’ making ‘Doorstop toast, butter sliced thick like cheese’ who once prayed with her granddaughter, ‘head bowed,/enamoured of the quiet loyalty of another tongue.’ Whilst Issa states she is ‘a woman of neither here nor there,’ she is of course a woman of both, poetry providing an ideal canvas on which to unite these disparate elements and reach for the commonality of human experience.
Issa, like Harris, reminds us that landscapes are not just picturesque hills and meadows, but also repositories of conflict, where history is the ‘Beauty and Blood.’ Here she imagines the Hammar marshlands drained, not by Saddam, but to flood Capel Celyn, ‘an exchange of tears,/displacing people like chessboard pawns.’ It is left to the women to ‘tattoo each other’s stories in secret’ as the valley fills with water, Issa making eloquent comparison between the two places.
Issa is a storyteller, deftly braiding threads of family and legend into intricate narratives. Here, steel rubs shoulders with sand, Blodeuwedd with Si’luwa and Shahrazad. From the wooden drawers of her nan’s Welsh dresser ‘emerge stories of loyal dogs and fickle flower princesses.’ She gifts her son
with the names(‘Lands of Mine’)
of extraordinary princes, and the stories of
of Fallujah, of Aberfan, of Baghdad, of
Along with the stories comes responsibility; to act, to challenge stereotypes, patriarchy and racism, and empower the individual with the means to make their own history count. In ‘I Don’t See Colour’ Issa describes her growing awareness of being a person ‘of colour,’ her scarf ‘a beacon of unbelonging,’ her seven-year-old hands ‘too ‘black.’ She ends with the lines: ‘Of course you don’t see colour./How could you in a world so full of white?,’ echoing Harris’s childhood experience of fairytales packed with white characters. Yet the stereotypes are also national ones, affecting representations of Wales as well as Iraq:
Daffodils and rugby(‘Croesawgar’)
choirs and coal have caricatured us
into an image as convenient as Lake
The ‘niqabi woman/speaking Welsh on the bus’ finds that ‘the ch of both a Welsh/and Arabic tongue has faced rejection here.’ Prejudice is not limited to colour, but also extends to language and nationality.
In ‘Better Version of Bravery,’ Issa emphasizes the need for speaking up, how we should not remain silent or look away: ‘But no one wants to wear the face of a coward on a T-shirt/so I’ll borrow a better version of bravery/I’ll say I did something.’ Issa’s strength is that she meets these challenges with love and courage, and opens up her ‘qalbayn,’ her two hearts, to the world around her:
Two hearts my body can hold,(‘My Body Can House Two Hearts’)
so I mould my legacy:
to make space enough for all,
standing tall, I rise, breathe free.
Two hearts – a strength none can take;
love’s a lake and the world is thirsty.