More for Helen of Troy, Simon Mundy, Seren
An ancient world looms large in Simon Mundy’s collection, usually as a point of comparison with a (mostly) inferior modern world. In Radnor Songs II, “iron” in times past “meant victory”, not the “slag and unemployment” of the present in which “fun, sport, import, point” are missing. In III of the sequence “warrior blood” has given way to weekend-only lovers. The Island sequence continues the theme: a beach party (I) is a tawdry, noisy nuisance, the seaside town is “ragged” (III), full of “places of ill-repute” where instead of meaningful activity “we watch and play”; VIII notes how the eponymous island has been spoilt by “poison”. The modern world is tawdry and directionless, given to “democracy”, lacking the order provided by gods, chieftains, kings and aristocrats connected to nature. A number of poems call for or expect the destruction of this unsatisfactory modern world. In Island II nature fights back, boobies attacking “a whole cruise liner of Americans”, the sea sweeping a banana boat into a cathedral. In Collusion, mountains “tip settlers … through the rapids”. Island IX calls for “all bridges [to be blown]”.
Another key motif is physical age. Presteigne Festival laments that
“A generation’s beauty has furrowed and eroded,
Desire crumbled into bitter flakes”
and that “plans have progressed from paper / to ash…”
In The Island VII, age renders the speaker invisible, having become “forgotten geography”. In Radnor Songs II, “All I have / Is a list of what has been”.
But the present day and indeed advanced age are not always seen in a wholly negative light. Prayer for a God-daughter is a celebration of new life, as is Translated Daughter in which the arrival of the child serves to
This sombre night
Into glorious dawn”
And there is an acknowledgement in The Island I that at least the rioters are “tidy” and “leave nothing broken”, an implied positive comparison with a violent past.
Also scattered through the collection are poems of personal incidents, memories of love and of places, observations of human behaviour and the like and their associated thoughts and feelings.
Calling to mind the poetry of The Movement, Mundy’s poems are not generally experimental in form or text, but structured in a way that recalls the traditional. Stanzas, similar line length and initial capital letters provide form, and suggest regular metre and rhythm. The music is frequently attractive, as in Helen IV, where the lines “In full June panoply she seems / Gaspingly beautiful” enact a gasp of wonder.
This is generally a poetry of ideas. For such poetry to be successful, those ideas have to be original and interesting. In this respect, The Mermaid is perhaps not original enough. And the modern/ ancient world duality doesn’t always fully work for the same reason.
There are additional reasons why these poems did not always resonate for me. Intended or not, some of the criticisms of the modern world come out as envy of the young, and of youthful activities from which the poet is now excluded. In The Island III, the poet notes the “contours of the bottoms of the ‘schoolgirls, nearlywomen girls”. In VII the speaker’s invisibility is in respect of “the firm young wayfarers / Especially the cadet women”. Young girls are also the focus of attention in The Island VI where the narrator “meander[s] to heaven” in the company of “two slaves, females not above fifteen”.
There is also a tendency to intervene in the poems, telling the reader what to think, always a danger in poetry of ideas. “Whose was the cry of victory?” in An Incident of War is entirely rhetorical. Island IV is an extreme example of the tendency to tell in its refrain of variations on “Can an age be right …”.
The poetry is most successful when it is less about thought, less about telling. Translated Daughter is perhaps the best poem in the collection, summoning images from the work of conceptual artist Klara Pokrzywko to create a powerful emotional state. The Helen sequence is varied in point of view, tone and form, and hangs together well round its central motif, leaving space for the reader to make connections. The sequence Four Lyrics likewise leaves room for the reader to contribute his or her own response to the mix of external and personal worlds which make up the subject matter of the poems.
Among other attractive poems are Radnor Songs I where the ancient landscape is seen through what the reader gradually comes to realise is the point of view of a buzzard; The Island II, which enters surrealistic territory to good effect; Afternoon Excuse, with its translation of irritation into poetry; and Gently of Course, a case where the thought is original.
So, a varied and interesting collection, with some issues that the poet might wish to address in his next one. Robin Thomas
Robin Thomas has recently completed an MA in Writing Poetry at Kingston University . He has had poems published in Ripple, The University of Reading Creative Arts Anthology and Rum Baba among others, and has published two books of poetry: Caramel Coated Popcorn and Unremembered Acts. He is married with a daughter and lives in Reading