Digging deep and striking lucky
Sometimes it almost seems unfashionable to measure a poem's success by the spinal shiver or the Housman razor test, but for me Gareth Owen has suddenly become the kind of poet who must be responded to in this way. His new collection The Fox on the Roundabout is a book full of real poems. It opens with some rather self-conscious kids' stuff, as if to establish streetwise credentials, but then suddenly takes off and you forget that you are reading "children's poetry". The knee-high voice-over disappears, and far deeper resources are tapped.
Exploring "beyond the edges of my life", Owen engages with questions of identity, emotional betrayal, unsettling changes of circumstance, love and loss. He pulls no punches, does not patronise, yet there's nothing here (not even the remarkable, long, conversational monologue, "Blind Date" in which a married woman comes to terms with her husband's adultery) which could be regarded as unsuitable for, or beyond, children. These are poems for private reading and long thought, though there are also a few which would go down well in performance.
He is particularly good at suggesting a narrative by means of picking on a few startling details, offering a child's eye view of adult grief as in the short ballad-like "The Green Scarf" which suggests comparison with Charles Causley's "What has Happened to Lulu?". A simple opening is followed by only three more stanzas, but in their 12 lines they tell, obliquely, all that needs to be told about a family crisis.
I had reservations about Gareth Owen's previous collection, My Granny is a Sumo Wrestler, finding it too miscellaneous, but this book digs deep and strikes lucky.
There are some strong poems, too, in Judith Nicholls' Storm's Eye, particularly one from the title sequence in which King Cnut attempts to teach his people about the limits of power and responsibility, and in another of the sequences entitled "Beginnings" she recalls her own childhood in some affectionate vignettes which touch gently on the present: "And I, with children of my own,now turn to them and smileto hear again their echoesof my childish song." Nicholls is an accomplished writer, but what I rarely find in her work is any real bite and surprise in the language. She is refreshingly on the side of true imagination, but her phrasing is often a second-hand borrowing from the treasury: "the forest of my dreams", "before time barely had begun" (that "barely" not doing much in the way of disguise) etc. Dark predictably falls and winter passes. There's plenty of rhythmic animation, though, and a nice way with sprightly compounds. A kangaroo is "pear-drop,space-hopper,rest-on-a-tail" and a moth is "Fly-by-night,moon-brusher."
Barrie Wade delights in metaphors but has a tendency to extend them beyond their natural life, as in "Herons" which "requiring a long runway" introduce 12 lines of ingenious airport analogy. As a demonstration of what can be done with imagery, though, this and several other of the poems in Rainbow could be instructive. "Telling" is an excellent poem about a bullied child who only tells on "oily, rat-eyed Micky Price" when he and a mate hurt his friend, but attempts at lyricism don't really come off: "Hush, can you seein the moon's silver beamthe light of the worldbeginning to dream?". There's something tired about this which shouldn't be offered as an alternative to quick-fix jokiness.
Well worth buying, and very attractively priced, is Are you Talking to Me? an anthology of four contemporary Welsh poets (Mike Jenkins, Penny Windsor, Christine Evans and Owen Sheers) little known outside their own country, plus the admirable John Tripp who died in 1986, whose work was included in Penguin Modern Poets and who may be remembered by some for his guest appearances on TV's Poems and Pints. The range of work is impressive, and each poet introduces his or her selection with intelligent, unpatronising credos.