Steven Lovatt reviews Still by Christopher Meredith (Seren, 2021)
Here are thirty-three intelligent and expertly-made poems, all of them worth reading, memorising – do people still do this? – and revisiting. The main subject is the experience of time, Meredith’s own and that of people generally, and abstraction is avoided by having the poems take off from and remain within the gravitational pull of material details: a teacup, eggs, the saccade of an eye. The weirdness of time is a rich theme, and Meredith peers at it from various standpoints. The parallax distortion of memory is acknowledged, and also its seeming arbitrariness – why should it be this detail, among billions, that lodges in the mind, there to grow ‘weighty with a fixity it never had’? Why, in the last two words of ‘Moving pictures’, are such images ‘moving/still’? Another poem notices that what we remember in a sense fixes us, too, as if the object or emotion takes a snapshot of the one who receives its impression. Thus you may receive an impossible vision of yourself, ‘forever in slow/motion sailing down the narrow stairs’ of a house sixty years ago.
This poem (the title poem of the collection) centres on a tussle for memory between the speaker, assumed to be Meredith, and his parents. Is it really possible that he can remember his grandfather, when at the moment recalled he was only a baby? They tell him that it isn’t, that he was far too young. There’s more at stake than first appears, since in the act of remembering (which is still an act, even if it is a fabrication), Meredith is not only preserving a link to a loved grandparent, but also constituting himself, writing himself a past. Without memories we are deprived of our sources and our ‘story’, and much as we’re urged to live in the moment, it’s disastrous to be denied our histories. As Joan Didion has it, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live’. Remembering a moment knocks a chink in forgetting and through the aperture flows biography – all that we call life, beyond the bald biochemical fact. In the description of the memory, a narrative starts up, begins to chug and whirr. And then the lights come on.
Without memories we are deprived of our sources and our ‘story’, and much as we’re urged to live in the moment, it’s disastrous to be denied our histories.
Memories being valuable, they can also be commodified, and narratives frozen into versions that suit the powerful. ‘Stereoscope’ considers an image of Native Americans, made to impersonate themselves before their victors’ cameras:
A dividend of conquest is this space
for creativity, plate after plate
made to deck the parlours of the curious
and hymn the peoples they’d annihilate.
One way or another, the threat of annihilation is never far away. Meredith is sixty-six now, and in ‘Air camera’ he looks back in wonder and also perhaps a little shock at how quickly his own past is expanding. Several other poems recognise imminent obliteration on a social and planetary scale. When in ‘Stereoscope’ he writes of an ‘elegy/for what’s not gone’ he’s referring to the fate of those Native Americans who live still and yet whose stories seem all in the past. But the phrase applies equally well to any nature writing as we push Earth to its various ‘tipping points’ of no return. Presentiments of environmental disaster haunt many of these poems in repeated references to conflagration that don’t spare his beloved Usk valley. In ‘Steampunk jungle’, the collection’s midpoint and emotional high water mark , the feelings roused by a walk to the site of the Gleision Colliery disaster of 2011 accelerate into lines of almost uncontrollable force and momentum. The final quarter of this poem is as powerful as anything I have read in a long time.
The theme of time suits Meredith’s qualities as a poet. He’s startlingly good at selecting – ‘stilling’ – details to convey landscapes, interiors, events. In an old photo of his sons their hair is blown out ‘sideways in the wind’, motion and stillness making each other visible. In another poem, ‘Standing place’, he imagines the disturbance we cause to the repose of a room when we enter it.
the sculpted teapot still as de Chirico
does a jelly shiver
Amid an eerie distortion of time-space and objects roused to sentience, Meredith introduces, first, the most boring verb in English and then… a jelly – yet without losing the spookiness. It’s a good trick, and it reveals an aspect of his most characteristic trait as a poet, namely the dextrous use he makes of the tensions in his own personality between flightiness and earthiness, vulnerability and assertion, loquacity and restraint.
Poets are people to whom language comes unnaturally, and I daresay in the right company, and by halfway through the third pint, Meredith’s fluency could reach a point of virtuoso excess. But when writing he knows how to temper the gift, and not only by a mastery of form (which didn’t save Auden, for instance, from his late windiness) but by a respect for the resistance of words themselves – the material, historical and ethical ballast that partly determines what can be done with them. ‘Materialist’ begins by describing the composition of ink from oak gall, and ends
If a word is life
And a word is death
It’s bred in the blood
That comes of earth
This is implicitly ethical language, and though we can’t be sure that it’s Meredith speaking, the authoritative diction gives it the air of a credo. Meredithis indeed concerned with ethics, but whereas R. S. Thomas, a poet he occasionally resembles, delights in meting out the implacable moral (while the reader crouches in the brace position, sensing the coming impact but unable to stop it), the poems in Still gain ethical force from their cumulative revelation of a sensibility that’s alternately wise, funny, ironic, tender and barbed, but always with a sympathetic curiosity about other people and the shared world.
Poets are people to whom language comes unnaturally, and I daresay in the right company, and by halfway through the third pint, Meredith’s fluency could reach a point of virtuoso excess.
Which is all very well, but in the end a poem is judged by its language, and when Meredith allows himself to take little flights, what beautiful lines can result. The ‘pale jazzhands of windfarms’, the ‘late sun rub[bing]’ a pearl/through pastel clouds, and the astonishing, almost baroque ‘draped electric green aurorae’ of the northern sky
* * *
Which do you find more beautiful: the sensory inundation of a spring wood, with its incalculable interactions of leaves, birds, light and shadow, or rather one or two birds in winter, silhouetted in a net of branches, graven on a white sky? The cover of Still shows part of Breughel the Elder’s ‘Hunters in the Snow’, a painting that in postcard reproduction has been Blu-tacked to my wall for nearly twenty years. Not only that – the detail selected for the cover is the very one I’ve always been drawn to: these same winter birds doubly frozen in frost and paint in the bare winter trees.
And then that single upright crow
On the bough of a decorous framing tree
Real as any you’ve ever seen
I have to take issue with Meredith here; with its set-back legs it looks less like a crow than an oddly marooned moorhen. Well, never mind that, but you can see immediately why this painting appealed to him, caught as he is, as we all are, halfway between stillness and flight.