Poetry Review: Vertebrae by Glyn Edwards

Poetry - Vertebrae by Glyn Edwards

Vertebrae is Glyn Edwards’ first collection – a book of poems that stand as a bridge between human and natural landscapes, linking past and present, beginning with the imminent birth of a son in ‘The Land or Body Tide’. This poem balances the emotive experience of seeing the unborn foetus via ultrasound scan, against the push and pull of seismic forces on the surface of the earth. It is shaped as a spine on the page, and it sets out the theme for what follows – a selection of poems that focus on relationship, particularly the challenges of fatherhood, within a natural environment, and emotional events observed from an analytical distance.

The Land or Body Tide - poem by Glyn Edwards

I must admit that, having been a fellow student on the MA in Creative Writing at MMU, I have already seen a few of these poems, either in their finished form or in previous drafts. But I can now see them from a new perspective, working alongside each other. It’s an interesting process to see a fellow poet’s work develop in this way, and a real treat to discover an interview printed in the back of the book, providing fascinating insights into the inspiration behind some of the poems.

‘Night Fishing’, the second poem in the collection, seems to get to the heart of the writing process – describing the impossible challenge of bringing up thoughts from the depths of your subconscious:

For decades my dreams were pike,
winched up from the barnacle dark,
febrile in the ugly dawn
and shameful of scrutiny.

At the spinning glint of a pen
or the lure of a bedside light
a pike would flex in my neck
as ruthless as a fired shell

and rise at the tense skin of sleep
and break it like glass.

‘The Hide’ is a curious poem which seems somewhat distant, yet mesmerising in its narrative. I only realised, after reading it several times, that it is a sestina, skilfully linking father, son, birds and landscape in a never-ending cycle of life:

and as the flock ferments and funnels, the father
says it feels like, right here, in this creaking hide,
we’re sat in the core of a greying storm. The boy
is hypnotised by the dark sky constellated in birds,
nature applauding itself, wings clapping like hands

My favourite poem in the whole collection is ‘Backstroke’, an evocative image of the bond between father and son, the need for ‘being held’ whilst simultaneously ‘swimming further, further / Away’ as the child grows older.

There is also a strong homage towards the work of other poets. In ‘Iago Prytherch is Standing in the Vestibule’ we see the ghost of R.S. Thomas, and in ‘Moortown’ we are taken on a surreal car-centred journey in search of Ted Hughes’ farmhouse. Dylan Thomas, the Brontë family, Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas and Robert Frost all make an appearance. Even Dorothy Wordsworth gets a poem to herself. In some ways this whole collection could be seen as a poetic pilgrimage, and an acknowledgement that everything (nature, humanity, life, death, even poetry) is far more complex and interconnected than we can ever hope to understand.

My favourite of these ‘homage’ poems is ‘Yr Ysgwrn’, a quiet verse which honours the Welsh language poet Hedd Wyn, who died during the First World War. It describes the interior of his old farmhouse, preserved as a tourist attraction:

It is too dark to read the spines of the books by the range,
too quiet to ask why ripped paper sags
and screens the beams. So, the old clock twitches
and the room leans nearer to the sheephaired storyteller
in his flatcap and to tales of his dead uncle,
the white crucifix, the black chair.

One thing I did not enjoy was the small print (it’s tiny!) and there are a few poems which don’t quite seem to fit alongside the others, but Glyn Edwards’ style is distinctive and clear – presenting a world of nature fused with poetry, fused with our own humanity, and the collection comes back round to its beginning with the final poem, ‘Marrow’ – a burial to mirror the opening promise of new life: “The fledgling was frightening to my son who saw / his shallow mortality in the bird and begged me / to bury it”.

Vertebrae by Glyn Edwards is published by The Lonely Crowd.