Charles Bainbridge, The Guardian, Saturday 11th March 2006:
Around my cradled self
Lynette Roberts's poetic voice still rings strikingly clear after 50 years, says Charles Bainbridge
"Downbeat", the final lyric in this long-awaited edition of the Collected Poems of Lynette Roberts, is wonderfully immediate. The scene is Laugharne churchyard, probably in 1949, and Roberts is living there in a caravan:
Sitting surrounded by wasps,
My only view in this lovely
And sad caravan
Are the graves and tombs filling
Each window pane
Clustering up the sweet earth.
From the front window she sees men arranging sheaves of barley "into a platform of dry trash". This image leads to the poem's extraordinary, defiant ending: "So the rats will come and their omens / But with them with more hop and joy / Fearless birds of splendid plumage." Those birds are a reference to herself and to her writing.
Exotic, daring, larger than life, Roberts shone throughout the 1940s, impressing such diverse figures as Robert Graves, TS Eliot, Edith Sitwell and Alun Lewis. In 1939 she married Keidrych Rhys, editor of the influential journal Wales. It was the height of the mid-century Welsh renaissance. Dylan Thomas was best man at the wedding.
Roberts was born in 1909 in Buenos Aires to a family with strong Welsh traditions, and in many ways her marriage and the subsequent move from London to the village of Llanybri was an attempt to move to a kind of homeland. It was an event that was fraught with tensions, but one that enabled her to produce, in just over a decade, an extraordinary and unique body of work.
Poems, published by Faber in 1944, is a remarkable book about wartime and about the daily routines of the home and the village. Some pieces celebrate her sense of belonging ("You want to know about my village"), others are more ambivalent ("To the village of lace and stone / Came strangers. I was one of these"). Many of the poems interweave the personal and the public to great effect. 'Lamentation' describes the results of a bombing raid at the same time as evoking her miscarriage - "But my loss. My loss is deeper / Than Rosie's of Chapel House Farm / For I met death before birth."
While she was producing these clear, direct pieces she was also writing more complex and demanding poems, the most outstanding example of which is the book-length sequence Gods With Stainless Ears, published in 1951. Part IV deals with her miscarriage in a strikingly different way to 'Lamentation'. The language is challenging, idiosyncratic, at first echoing the more surreal techniques of Dylan Thomas: "I, rimmeled, awake before the dressing sun: / Alone I, pent up incinerator, serf of satellite gloom / Cower around my cradled self."
This is a kind of vigorous expressionism - her body recast as an incinerator, a destroyer - and this deliberate confusion builds to the inescapable clarity of the lines: "But reality worse than pain intrudes, / And no near doctor for six days." The poem as a whole is remarkable: difficult, exotic, sensual, laden with striking imagery, it evokes the wartime experience of two lovers. There is nothing else like it in the literature of the time.
Her poetry has been out of print for nearly 50 years. In 1956 she had a severe breakdown and stopped writing. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, she spent time in and out of mental institutions until her death in 1995. Collected Poems finally gathers together her two published books of poetry along with prose pieces and uncollected poems, of which 'Downbeat' is a wonderful example.