Air Histories: Christopher Meredith, Seren
Air Histories, the latest collection from poet and novelist Christopher Meredith, is a protean work, shifting from archaeological landscapes to Oedipus. In this it reflects the poet’s career as poet, novelist, playwright, reviewer and teacher. Born and brought up in Tredegar, Meredith trained as a teacher and worked as a labourer in the steel industry. His first novel, Shifts, set against the decline of steel in south Wales, has remained in print since its first publication in 1988. Meredith now reads and lectures widely and teaches at the University of South Wales.
As with the air of the title, Air Histories is a difficult book to get a grip on. Many of the poems are outstanding and one, ‘The Record Keepers’ was highly commended in this year’s Forward Prize. Yet while poems such as ‘This Late’, ‘Guitar’, or ‘Alchemical’ are breath-taking as individual poems, the variety in content and form can make this collection difficult to handle. Early poems speak of air, earth and Wales and then more characters and subjects appear: Spanish priests and ladies, musical instruments, poems of war and ageing, poems in Welsh and English.
Air is Meredith’s best milieu: when he writes of air the words soar like the instruments he returns to again and again. As Edward Thomas beseeches in his poem ‘Words’ those “English words” have chosen Meredith to sing through – ironically perhaps, given Meredith’s Welsh background. So in ‘Borderland’: “where skylarks climb across an earth’s turn/to air” or in ‘Ridge’: “falling/and swelling/to where that edge/of upland/bites/the sky”. The line breaks and staggered text of this last poem replicate not only the mountain it describes but also the swooping musicality of the arpeggio it evokes.
One reason these poems are so successful is the delicate precision of the description. In ‘The fiddler’s frown’ Meredith writes how this frown comes from below and “spreading its sudden branches/like an electric tree/through all of him/bending him leftward tense and tender”. The effect on the reader is almost physical. This precision works well in poems about musical instruments - themselves delicate objects brought alive by the eponymous air - such as ‘Daniel’s Piano’ and the aforementioned ‘Guitar’. This is perhaps the best example of Meredith’s interest in the subtle interplay between music and sex: “I miss the glide of your mahogany/neck under the ball of my thumb” and “how close we get to something right/that’s made of air and time//and understands its own brief thrill/between two silences.”
There are some powerful poems here too about ageing, disease and loss. ‘Alchemical’ speaks of a woman who has forgotten everything but can still perform the “casual miracle” of making gravy: “the fluttering of the tablespoon/snowing flour”. And ‘This Late’ captures the writer’s visceral realisation of the unchanging circle of existence against a backdrop of ever-changing everyday life, the “raindrenched Clios, Subarus”. In other poems people and the earth itself take on a threatening tone such as ‘Not quite Apollo’, with some tourists caught in a mysteriously menacing landscape where “huge and curious rocks were hunched/above some secret place.”
As with the subject matter, these poems range widely in style and form. There are several poems in both Welsh and English, the pagination suggesting they were written in Welsh first. Most are at least a page long and stanzas range from couplets to chunky blocks of text although line-lengths tend to be short. In one poem, ‘At Colonus’, words are completely broken, scattered over the page like Morse code. The most successful poems create the precision discussed above through a blend of skilful alliteration and line breaks. ‘Think of this’, a sumptuous description of coiling fish, begins: “Think of this:/two fish that hang/under the hammered/amber/of the stream”. The “hang” of the second line is replicated in the delaying line breaks of the following lines.
Overall however this reader was left frustrated by Air Histories and its variety. Do poetry collections have to have a theme? Themed collections are en vogue, as evidenced by prize-winning collections like Stag’s Leap or Bee Journal. Yet even if these books take the idea to an extreme, it could be argued that to succeed as a collection poems must have a synergy, a fellow feeling about them. Plath’s Ariel contains poems about children, bees and fever, amongst other things, but their ultimate subject is the poet’s psychic landscape. Properly arranged slighter poems can gain power from those surrounding them and a collection can become more than the sum of its parts. Instead, in Air Histories, some poems can work to undermine others.