Poetry Review: Two Exquisite Pamphlets

Poetry Pamphlets - Brood and Teaching a Bird to SingThese two poetry pamphlets (Teaching a Bird to Sing by Tracey Rhys, and Brood by Rhian Edwards) each have their own unique style. What links them, in my mind, is the exceptional quality of the cover artwork, along with a kind of poetry which is unflinchingly honest and elegant in its portrayal of motherhood, emotion and the complexity of family relationships. The volumes both present us with the imagery of nesting birds – a perfect metaphor for motherhood.   

Teaching a Bird to Sing by Tracey Rhys
(published by Green Bottle Press in 2016)

Tracey Rhys’s poems are full of love and confusion, tender and real, as she reveals her personal experience of having an autistic child. The title poem, ‘Teaching a Bird to Sing’ describes her son, ready to make his way out into the world. We feel the universal helplessness of the mother, keen to see her offspring go, though afraid of potential dangers:

“I have a picture of him as a small child,
head tilted, sat atop a low slide, a fledgling poised for flight
And then he’s gone. Here we have him gliding on a thermal breeze,
legs high on a garden swing, eyes beads, black and alert.”

These poems give an insight into what it’s like to live with someone who is autistic, and the most poignant poems are those which attempt to describe what it’s like to be autistic. ‘Can I talk to you about dinosaurs?’ is a strange temporary reversal of roles, as the mother becomes distracted whilst reciting her facts:

“Right then, at that moment,
as I indulge him for the millionth time,
he is me and I am him…

Can I talk to you about dinosaurs?
Yes, yes…
though my mind alights on chairs
and beds, shoe scuffs on the skirting boards,
tumblers smeared with little greasy lips.”

Tracey Rhys has taken her own experiences, and those of her son, and transformed them into a collection of bright, candid poems that open a window into autism, and how it can affect the mother / child relationship, revealing it to be an intriguing condition, both beautiful and strange.

illustrations in Brood

Brood by Rhian Edwards
(published by Seren in March 2017)

Rhian Edwards is an exceptional performance poet, and these poems seem more sedate in style to her usual work. There is a strong focus on the visual, with charcoal sketches from local illustrator Paul Edwards adding an extra dimension to the text. The birds which feature in these poems act as a kind of framework, through which Edwards’ recounts her own experiences, confronting both the joyful and painful aspects of marriage, relationship breakdown and childbirth.

The ten-poem sequence ‘Pied Margot’ takes, in turn, each line of the famous magpie rhyme (‘One for sorrow’ etc.). I particularly enjoyed poem number eight, ‘Kiss’, which celebrates the strange combination of joy and frustration in a mother / daughter relationship:

“I am contorted in this pixie bed,
querulous with your story-time heckling,
your hair-splitting curiosity,
craving monikers for the anonymous,
under-wrought woodland chorus.”

Her language is full and direct, with an enjoyment of words which echoes the child’s “craving” for stories and names. But the final part of this sequence, “A Bird That’s Best To Miss”, is the most acute, describing the novelty and horror of pregnancy and miscarriage with blunt sincerity:

“Whatever is swelling
in this brackish gut,
does not belong;

the crazing of the cuckoo
egg in the dome
of the magpie’s

Both poets celebrate the challenges of motherhood, whilst showing this to be an astonishing and somewhat surreal experience. They have each created a nest full of small, exquisite poems that breathe a life of their own.

You can hear Rhian Edwards performing at the Cardiff Book Festival this weekend.

Declaration: I received free copies of these books in return for a review.