Reviewed by Hilary Menos, Nikolai Duffy and Matt Merritt
This made me laugh, and made me cry. There are a few words I'd quibble with — “bloodying” for blooding, for example, in 'Whistle', and maybe a line break or two. But quite a number of these poems are, I think, perfect. I'm still trying to pick my favourite. It might be 'Moonlanding: Wales, 1969' which starts “It was the summer of my first camera/ and the first footprint on the moon” and in eight unrhymed couplets does a whole pile of clever and beautiful things with images and words. Or it might be a poem in which Edwards makes reference to one of his two young sons, ‘Definitions’, perhaps, or ‘The Lecturer’ in which he describes teaching, during the day, about John Clare and then later trying to comfort his small son who wakes at night with "the terrors of the dark". These two things elide, to great effect –
and he huddles at my side,
cold and frightened,
learning to be alone
and all I can do,
is hold his hand
and stroke his hair
on the long walk home.
Edwards' subject matter is various, but he treats it all with the same sure, deft touch. His poems are spare, tightly controlled, and intelligent, interesting. 'Songs' reflects on attitudes fathers hand down to their sons by referencing traditional folk and blues songs, “Careless Love and/ Hard Rain,/teaching us not to be/ too kind”, and manages to combine ambivalence about the teaching with tenderness towards the men and the boys. Time after time he conjures up an image loaded with meaning and resonance, in just a few words. In ‘Soil’ he describes a stunned swift, whose tail “was a tuning fork/ invisibly vibrating, /pitched beyond sense”. In ‘The Possibility of Snow’ he remembers a lesson at school:
the sticky lens
tweezered from the jelly
of a sheep's eye,
of finding our
own world there
but upside down
now blurred, now sharp
Edwards is a poet who knows what to put in, and what to leave out. He knows where to end a line, and — oh joy — where to end a poem. He seems to have an intuitive understanding of how to walk the line between looseness and tautness, and ends up with a precision that still manages to range. From the brief cover blurb I note that this pamphlet was fifteen years in the making. It would be hackneyed to say I hope that the next one comes along after a somewhat shorter gap. But I do.
Martin Edwards’ Rainstorm with Goldfish is a spare, clipped set of poems. Much has been stripped away. Most are observational, direct, clear. On Edwards’ website there is a quotation from Selima Hill (quotation? endorsement?) that says: “tough, stubborn, intelligent, like knives”. Reading these poems it’s easy to see the applicability of this statement: the marks of the scalpel are here. There’s also a sense of William Carlos Williams’ “no ideas but in things” at play in these poems, though Edwards’ landscape is more peopled – with adjectives, metaphors, as well as individuals – than the analogy with Williams might suggest. ‘Whistle’ is a case in point:
Our dad’s showing us how to whistle
using a blade of grass.
Listen, he says.
Now you try.
I learn how precise
the word blade is
blooding my lips on its edge.
There are also echoes, to my ear, of poets as different as (early) Seamus Heaney and the late great, Ian Hamilton. Edwards’ poem, ‘Grief’, captures the same precise and understated weight that characterised the very best of Hamilton’s poetry:
Your eyes and nose and mouth
in a pattern of stars, gone
in a blink.
All the palaces of your voice were empty;
all the labyrinths of your fingerprints.
To my eye, the detail of the last two lines might be stripped back even further to match what’s at stake but there’s a singular confidence in saying little here that resonates with an impressive exactitude.
The closing poem, ‘The Neon Party’, blends this exactitude with ephemerality, the sense of things passing, and their strangenesses. Waiting outside a village hall to collect someone from a party (a son or daughter, a partner?), in the early hours, in snow –
it comes to me again,
how far out in the land we are,
how narrow and winding and
easily effaced the roads,
how late it is
and little I know of your friends
As with all HappenStance publications, this is a simple but elegantly produced pamphlet. The sparseness of production matches the palette of the poems. It would make pleasant company, on a rainy afternoon, beside the goldfish.
There’s a restraint and precision about Martin Edwards’ work that’s apparent from the first poem here, but just how precise strikes you in the first lines of the superb ‘Hate’:
I’m sixteen and just beginning
to hate myself.
I can’t know why.
How many poets, and perfectly good poets, too, would have settled for ‘I don’t know why’ there? This is the work of someone who’s willing to wait for the poem to find its own way, to produce what – the moment you’ve read it – feels like the only possible line.
Once he’s grabbed your attention, he doesn’t let go, either. ‘Soil’ is superb, with its grounded swift whose “tail was a tuning-fork/ invisibly vibrating,/ pitched beyond sense”. Swifts seem to have replaced seagulls as the poet’s bird of choice these days (I plead guilty to enlisting their help too readily myself), but this particular bird feels both true to life and metaphorically resonant.
Edwards frequently uses his spare, unadorned style to leave little gaps in his narratives, to particularly good effect in a poem like ‘Something’. Early on, he tells us he was “trying not to think/ about the obvious things”, and although he never spells out exactly what the ‘things’ (or the ‘something’ of the title) are, the poem is all the more effective for it.
Two more beautifully economical pieces, ‘Whales’ and ‘Grief’, are further evidence of Edwards’ precision, while ‘The Lecturer’ links John Clare and the poet’s son’s night terrors in a way that feels utterly natural.
He’s not a prolific poet – he went 15 years between his two pamphlets. You come away from this collection wanting more, but grateful that he has the patience to let these expertly distilled poems mature fully.