The Glass Aisle: Paul Henry, Seren
Born in Aberystwyth, singer-songwriter and poet Paul Henry has had nine previous books of poetry published and is an established voice on the Welsh poetry circuit.
In keeping with his earlier work, music and the sea are ever present in this latest collection, as are an assembled cast of characters who move effortlessly in and out of his poems like free spirits. Without going into much detail as to their identities, he leaves his readers to fill in the gaps. So, who are Catrin Sands, Geta, brown Helen, Prydwen Jane and Mary? The relationships are never clearly defined. Some readers may find this a source of irritation while others may savour the mystery - for there is much that is mysterious about this book.
The collection of 28 poems is divided into three parts. The second part is almost exclusively given over to the title poem in which a telephone engineer repairs a line that crosses a stretch of canal above Crickhowell in the Brecon Beacons to the site of an old workhouse. Hearing the voices of former inmates, he reconnects the centuries that have gone between them, releasing the Victorian ghosts of the past. It is an intriguing piece that moves back and forth between the disembodied voices and striking descriptions of the canal and its natural surroundings. The title poem evolved from an Arts Council of Wales Creative Wales Award, with material sourced from a pamphlet called ‘The Spike’ by the Rev Margaret Williams and an 1840s census in which the poem’s names appear. The cover painting ‘View from a Canal Bridge’ by Simon Palmer provides the perfect backdrop to the poem.
Henry often approaches his subject matter from an oblique angle. In ‘Last of the Sixties Mothers’, a tender remembrance of his own mother, we are given no physical description or list of attributes. Instead, Henry chooses to define her in terms of the things that she once possessed:
a dish-rack of forty-fives,
melamine picnic plates,
starburst clocks, half-alive,
shrivelled inflatable chairs …
In Henry’s world, all is not as it seems. Why, for instance, in the title poem, is the engineer up in the tree for a whole year? What is a bridge that likes butter? Why do we learn more about the deceased inmates than we do about the engineer? The only thing we are told about him is that he has a red beard. In ‘St Michael’s’ why do all the seasons change in one day? In ‘The Father in the Well’ who put him there and why?
Can you hear him, boys?
Who put him in?
There are mice and bats
inside the wall’s ring.
Some nights he cannot bear
to hear your laughter spill
from the moonlit porthole
into his tower in the ground.
Descriptions of the natural world and the forces that shape it are beautifully expressed. In ‘Brown Helen Reclining’ Henry writes of “the wind’s stammer / snagged on a gate” and in the title poem where “clouds clear, stars spill / cows amble over the moon” he verges on the surreal.
The dominant mood of this collection is undoubtedly elegiac. The poems that address childhood are nostalgic but not sentimental; those addressed to Catrin Sands and others speak of a loss that is at times still quite raw though lightly touched upon.
‘Nettle Race’ with its sense of abandonment to the ravages of nature; the evocation of time spent in a favourite bookshop (‘Lockyer’s); and the final poem ‘Not Stopping’ in which a figure stands on a station platform hoping his daughter will return the wave that he gives to her as her train speeds through, are magical examples of so much that is to be admired in this collection. Recommended.