Review of Still by Christopher Meredith, pub. Seren 2021
Sound of leaves not falling
The title of one of the poems here, it could well also stand as an epigraph, for there is a lot of space, absence, not-happening, right from the beginning of this collection:
When you step in to the empty room
you interrupt whatever it was
that the room wasn’t doing (“Standing place”)
These first few poems are also much concerned with memory, its unreliability, the way it fictionalises and casts doubt on reality.
No no, they say. You never saw him.
He couldn’t stand, and you were far too young.
But you did. He could. (“Still”)
Solid furniture is “ruffled”; a sofa stares at “where you seem to be”. But amongst this doubt, insubstantiality and shifting, another possible epigraph, from “In this stilled air the turning trees”, would be “the shape we make in time”. Mr Meredith has been a remarkably busy bee of late, bringing out both a novel and a poetry collection in the same month, and it is natural to look for correspondences between them. The novel, Please, reviewed here, is much concerned with the shape we make in time, its impermanence and how it may be differently seen, not only by different people but by the same person at different stages of life. These concerns also haunt this collection; it often seems to be trying to establish what locus exactly humans can claim in “their” landscape, “the standing place/where you can’t stay”.
It is a collection very aware of landscape, as this poet has always been, but while sharp, observational language like “the inimical gorgeous cold” (“Even in dreamscapes”) could have come from any of his collections, the sense of the vastness of landscape compared to its temporary human inhabitants in “North coast swing” seems new:
the nuances of grey stretch out immense, unhuman
into the toppled corridor of air
that rifts the sea and cloud.
Various ways of memorializing the dead – statues, photographs, writing, cherishing mementoes, human memory itself – crop up, and all, in the end, seem inadequate, erased. The narrator of “Upstairs” looks for traces of a dead woman in her former rooms:
Something in us builds imaginary rooms
the walls somehow exhaling truth
a rippled glass reflecting
a familial face.
And on the battlements must be a ghost,
mustn’t there, with a remembered voice
But in the end:
I could think of nothing
but a steep path down a cliff
all rock and light and moving air
and at its end
Dry humour is still, as ever, a feature. In “Village birds”, our jackdaw-narrators assume human civilisation has evolved purely for their benefit:
We bring meaning
to your heapings of the curious rocks.
Those chimneys are evolved
for purging jackdaws’ ticks.
The privet rooms are meant for us.
We hold our councils on your walls
But the sardonic humour is darkened by our realisation that this assumption is no more fanciful than our own habit of supposing (like Don Marquis’s toad Warty Bliggens) that the planet we live on was created for our convenience. In one of the last poems, “On Allt yr Esgair”, the human is more or less assimilated into the landscape, with an acceptance that, inadequate as they may be, pen and brush are the only ways we can make our mark on it:
Under the serpent galaxy
the motifs of stone hills recur
in scoops and curls across the sky
cutting the landscape’s signature. […]
What else is left for us but this?
With pen and brush to shape our track,
like moths and streams and hills and stars,
a human shadow on the rock.
Technically very subtle and varied, with an unobtrusive tracery of half-rhyme running through it, this collection has moments where it veers into ballad, legend and folk-tale territory. “The train north”, an account of a journey not taken (how characteristically for this collection) during the poet’s time in Finland, is a stand-out poem for its strangeness and edginess, while “Nightfall” is a very powerful eco-poem that manages to be menacing rather than preachy:
on the hill above the villages.
is flowing up the field.
See the wounded
limping from the ridges
with rags tied
round the remnant of a world.
the houses’ gradual effacement
under the shadow
as each light goes out.
are shuttering the casements
for barricades across the street.
It’s interesting that both the novel and this collection have monosyllabic titles. This certainly is not because Meredith’s lifelong fascination with, and delight in, words is diminishing, but there is at times in these poems a sense of spareness, of a view pared down to what matters: the bones of a landscape, the space where a person is, or sometimes is not.