This is a pamphlet in a Seren series celebrating poems of place (the others are Pembrokeshire, Snowdonia and the Borders). There are 27 poems: one is mine, but I am following my rule that one poem doesn't disqualify me from reviewing a book.
It's tricky to review poems about a place one knows really well. I am conscious that "Clare Road" and "Animal Wall" evoke an immediate response in me that wouldn't happen in someone unfamiliar with the city. But I can say that Cardiff's essential gallusness comes through in many of them, for instance Oliver Reynolds' "Taff":
is a thief river
stealing from little hills
sneaking to Cardiff
to paint the town black
has a dirty mouth
and colludes with the sea,
French-kissing the channel
all the way round to Brest
For all the Taff is a lot cleaner these days, that still resonates. Most of these poems, in fact, come from recent times, which means that some once-iconic sights and smells of Cardiff – the vivid steel-town sunsets, the aroma of malt that used to pervade the city from Brains' brewery – are missing. But a sea town it always was and still is, and some of the most evocative poems are those with a sea connection, like Philip Gross's fine "Sluice Angel" about the great lock gates at the barrage, and Mike Jenkins' "Kairdiff Central Seagull", a bird with attitude:
It struts around me:
I am surrounded by a single bird!
This also highlights the sardonic, irreverent humour that is so much part of the city, as does Peter Finch's "St David's Hall", poking fun at the great and good coming out of a concert feeling "enormous cymrectitude". I had just recovered from that coinage when he capped it with his description of their attire, "those woollen celtic/drapes that make you look like an overweight bat". Finch on form is the Ken Dodd of poetry; the sallies come faster than you can react to them. His other poem here works less well for me, but that's the point of him; he takes risks, and sometimes they come off.
Of course certain things are common to all cities, in one form or another, and I should think Abeer Ameer's "Roathed" would strike a chord with most city-dwellers, because every city surely must have a slightly precious, hippy-dippy but pleasantly relaxed suburb like Roath, where one can "swan off with the swans".
There are a few poems I like less, and a few that I don't feel have much to do with Cardiff. And things I miss. The city's multiculturalism doesn't come over as much as I would like. But the attitude, the humour, the liminal nature of this city that is edgy in all senses is there, also the arcades with their niche shops, their oddly haunting quality perfectly captured by the king of nostalgia, Paul Henry:
Already you're gone, fixing your eyes
on a road's darkening arcade.
What song do you sing as the light fades?
The music shop you work in has closed
but I have to believe it is not too late.
Is it your eyes or your laugh I miss most?
I'd buy you those boots or that bracelet
your mother wore, or an amber ring
to prove it is not too late to sing,
to prove we are more than worn-out ghosts.
Dream in arcades, love. Dream in arcades.