Alan Morrison on
Genteel Messages – Gwilym Williams
Poetry Monthly Press, 2008
54 pp perfect bound, ISBN 978-1-906357-17-7 £5.25
A Packet of Revels
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you can't go far wrong with Gwilym Williams. The editor of the ever heart-warming webzine Poet-in-Residence provides us with an equally warming collection of poems, which goes down as smoothly as a ‘darkly bottled stout’ (‘The poets of the public bar’). Genteel Messages – a nicely produced slim volume with a full colour cartoon cover of part of a man’s head attached to puppet strings – is a welcome follow up to Williams’ debut pamphlet, the excellent Mavericks. It’s satisfying to see this eminently readable and witty poet at last in perfect-bound form.
Williams is a poet who always surprises me through the course of reading a selection of his poems, rather like going through a packet of Revels: you never quite know what the filling is going to be until you bite into it. In just 54 pages, Williams provides sketches of pub literati (‘Good Companions’; ‘The poets of the public bar’), poet ghosts (‘Waiting with Beckett’; ‘Walking with Bukowski’), tongue-in-cheek poetic pastiche (‘Runcorn East’ – subtitled with apologies to Edward Thomas; the Hughesian ‘Crow’), Carrollish polemic (‘Dr. Strangelove & The New Model Triad’), beguiling vignettes (‘An Old Man Walks Home’), quirky studies of the mundane (‘Haircut’; ‘Christmas Shopping’), picturesque travelogue (‘On Attending the Venice Biennale’; ‘On the Felderherrenhalle Steps’; ‘Iron Curtain’), as well as his trademark native leg-pulling (‘Report on ‘Welsh Grammar’’) and Austrian miniatures (‘Simon Rattle Conducts’; ‘Greilenstein Castle’) – the poet resides in Vienna. The fillings are mostly honeycomb and there are very few, if any, orange or coconuts among them (ok, metaphor over).
Williams is a particularly likeable Welsh-hailed poet, in that he doesn’t take his sense of nationality too seriously (unlike other modern day bards from the valleys one might think of), possibly helped by living at a distance in Austria and no doubt gaining a more objective view of his native land and inhabitants as, say, James Joyce did of Ireland while living in Switzerland et al. Two pages in and, even in what is ostensibly a travelogue piece based in Venice, he can’t help a little tongue-in-cheek nostalgia for fellow countrymen, depicting them from proverbial memories by their absence in ‘the last nook and crannied corner’ of an Austrian pub garden:
There was no Evans the Flasher
under the rough lean-to –
There was no Seawright the Painter
in the whitewashed entresol –
only his sunsets.
It was all very Welsh.
(‘On Attending the Venice Biennale’)
I mentioned before in my review of Mavericks that Williams possess more of a smattering of his Welsh antecedents, the two Thomases. RS is given more reverential treatment (as opposed to the equally masterful but more leg-pulling ‘Deus Absconditus’ in Mavericks):
Having read his anguished words
I too am moved to dip my pen
into the spilled inkpot
of a Welsh sunset.
the mangels docked you kept the knife
and grinned your way
to the hunchbacked rain-soaked church
beside the sea.
Under your blue slate slab
below the trembling
pray rest easy
in your seashore bed.
(‘On Reading RS Thomas’)
Here we have at work both the metaphorical verbal lilt of Dylan Thomas (‘hunchbacked rain-soaked church’) mingled with the sparser lyricism of Alun Lewis (the last stanza). Shades of Lewis proliferate Williams’ poems – whether consciously or unconsciously – with beautiful imagery and an almost prayer-like ease:
The palace of bread and circus
according to the Roman poet.
Below the stones of the quadrifons
below the prayers to Jupiter
below the unseen buzzard
wine splashes from dark bottles.
And bread is torn.
The crowd begins to cheer.
This uncluttered Lewisian lyricism strikes frequently in Williams’ poems:
Bryn the collie sits tight-lipped
on the tractor.
and the wax flies
from the dresser candle
to land on the forward leading portraiture
and the blue blazes of crockery.
Bryn the collie growls over the hill
hurtles into space.
The moon rolls over
(‘On the Farm’).
Like Dylan Thomas (who often crops up in Williams’ poems – this time in ‘Good Companions’ where, presumably, by ‘Dylan’s/ Ears’ this poet is referring to Thomas’s poem ‘Ears in the Turrets Hear’), Williams both dabbles in verbal play, and vernacular mimicry, which is one of the latter’s greatest strengths (‘Hard Cases’, but most notably employed in the authentic and hilarious ‘Telling Directions’ in Mavericks).
In the painterly sensibility of ‘Iron Curtain’ (subtitled location – Hungary/Austrian border), Dylan Thomas’s verbal influence is felt:
Old wet yellow-skinned apples
lie under bare trees
on rumps of sump-black leaves
on swards of grease-slumped grass
and softly sigh and sink.
Bruised or darkly rotting
worm-holed or bird-pecked
its all silently raked
heaped and salvaged
in old tubs; a winter feast
for the root-crunching hogs
of the wooded hills.
The poem closes with the wistful reflection:
I can’t help glancing back
and wonder why they didn’t fall;
those few apples still hanging
from the bones of the shaken trees
like ropes of pale gold lights.
Williams often excels at metaphor, precisely because he doesn’t spell it out:
In Romantische mood
the silver haired spider
is on the podium
before all Vienna
and the Philarmonic.
ten thousand trapped and trembling insects
begin to flap
He is fond of the sardonic sketch of literary pretension, more often than not set in dingy pubs whose trade is presumably based on such poetasting punters:
The young men, wild rovers,
sailing into the bar;
pals who like their pilsner
by the golden fistful,
fresh, fizzy, and sparking
But it’s mostly froth, airy,
full of holes. Blow it away
and you’re left with what?
Half a pot, perhaps?
Sounding far more appetising is the observer’s own take:
little bitterness, solid fare
with the craftman’s touch,
voices of experience in dark corners
under sentimental sepia prints.
I know which I’d rather imbibe. In ‘Good Companions’, the poet recommends taking a ‘bunch’ of poems
…down the pub
in a slim book
that slips easily in the pocket
and sit on a barstool
with your slim poems
and your stout pint.
one might say
what’s that Bloodaxe book you’re reading?
Disarm this one
reply that you consider Dylan’s
Ears the tipple of metaphorical maturity
a complimentary pint might even flow.
This could almost be a scene out of Hancock's Half Hour; the Homburged rebel of Railway Cuttings probably would have said in his mockney idiom, ‘a mob of poems’).
Williams never disappoints didactically, in this collection disinterring one of countless forgotten poets, with more than a hint of DT (Dylan Thomas, not delirium tremens – or maybe there is a pun in that):
He was an Irish poet
of the genuine coin and stamp
from Lettermullen; head full
of far-fetched oddments
of hand-picked bog land humour.
‘Colium Wallace (1796-1906)’ ends in a more downbeat tone, depicting the unceremonious declining years of the obscure poet, with lightly daubed lyricism:
but in truth he was blind and in bed
and it was probably raining
his own unlikely sunset setting
was Oughterhead Workhouse
and it is there he was remembered
simply and straightforwardly
as the oldest man in Connemara.
Williams’ powers of description build in the near-tangible ‘Coastal Path’:
on this wind-blasted coastal trip
with their backs to the waves
small trees bend
to look like scraggy crabs
on that smooth hillock
on those strange stumps
in this cutting of shells
For me personally, the stand out poem of this truly enjoyable collection is the beguiling ‘An Old Man Walks Home’, which contains some beautifully descriptive lines and some wistful, haunting meditations:
In the garden there grows a crippled tree
heavy with crab-apples
food for worms
On the outhouse roof
the owl rests
patient for the night
Magritte’s clock with no hands.
And below is an old man
walking home and wondering why
he was given the ability
to question it all.
In the kitchen
face to face with twilight
draws the curtains.
I recommend Genteel Messages wholeheartedly for any poetry reader who wishes for some rewarding and colourful respite from the dreary introspection of much of today’s British ‘poetry scene’ - and from my favourite ex-pat poet,
For more information on Genteel Messages and how to order please click on this link
All extracts from poems © Gwilym Williams 2008
Alan Morrison © 2008