Steven Matthews,Poetry Review Issue 96:1, Spring 2006:
I Think Alone
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this Collected Poems is that, in many senses, it presents the work of an occasional poet. Virtually all of the work included here was written within a single decade of Roberts's eighty-six year long life. Since that period of intense writing stretches from the early 1940s, the occasion of many of the poems - even when seemingly pastoral or love lyric - is the ground bass of loss and violence which can suddenly devastatingly erupt into ordinary local lives. Roberts was a unique figure, a Welsh poet who was born and lived her young childhood in Argentina. It is only in her 'South American' lyrics that the immediate shadow of the contemporary war is lifted. At this partly-imagined, partly-recalled remove, the celebration of nature can be unreserved, if never without unexpected purpose, as in these lines of stark contrast at the end of 'Royal Mail':
Outside sweating gourds
Dripping rind and peel; yet inside cool as lemon,
Orange, avocado pear.
While in this damp and stony stare of a village
Such images are unknown:
So would I think upon these things
In the event that someday I shall return to my native surf
And feel again the urgency of sun and soil.
The yearning for urgency is typical, and releases the energies in many of the lyrics in the first part of this book. Roberts is a strikingly ambitious poet, given the brevity of her writing life; ambitious in her use of form to enhance the vigour of the poetry's speaking voice. This collection contains experiments in Welsh forms alongside Greek metrics, ballads, sonnets, even villanelles. But it is the invigilated restlessness, and concurrent desire for settledness, a kind of impatience with the expressive possibilities of any one form or statement, which create the excitement when reading her work. Even within a single poem, the transitions are abrupt and revelatory. 'The Shadow Remains', one of several poems voicing the plight of the woman left behind by the soldier gone to war, is about the thwarting in these conditions of ability "to speak of everyday things with ease". Instead, the woman must more honestly speak of the shiftlessness of this life, and of the
[...] brazier fire that burns our sorrow,
Dries weeping socks above on the rack: that knew
Two angels pinned on the wall - again two.
The work I have quoted so far comes from the first book gathered in this Collected, the small volume poems which appeared under T. S. Eliot's editorship from Faber in 1944. A mini-epic, Gods With Stainless Ears, in which war again intervenes disastrously in the relationship of two lovers, appeared in 1951. Eliot then rejected a third collection and that, it seems, was the end of Roberts's poetry. This edition is enlivened by some of the interchange between Roberts and her editor, as it is also by instances from her correspondence with Robert Graves about her work. In both cases, Roberts writes to her lauded male contemporaries as at least an equal: resisting some of Eliot's suggestions for verbal changes in her work and drawing upon some of her comprehensive knowledge of local myth and legend to inform Graves at the time he was working on The White Goddess.
When she seeks to include something of that knowledge in her own work, however, the result is disappointing. After learning to relish the lyrics of Poems, with their sometimes shocking concatenation of subject ('Lamentation', for instance, includes an odd incident when farm animals were killed in an air raid alongside distress at a miscarriage), Gods With Stainless Ears represents a rebarbative experience. Anxious to set her contemporary narrative within recurring cycles, Roberts deploys paradoxically-disruptive syntax and specialist geological or chemical vocabularies. Roberts's own plethora of annotation to each part of Gods perhaps leads the editor of this edition, Patrick McGuinness, to claim that her closest poetic peer was David Jones. But Roberts's work seems to me to lack the "key to all mythologies" drive of Jones. She seems, in her askance and community-focused perspective upon wider dynamics, as in her delight in obscure vocabulary, closer to another of the poets sponsored by Eliot at this time, W. S. Graham.
Gods has momentary intensity in its descriptions of the woman left behind, of the conflict between lovers, of the Welsh landscape. But it is in the lyrics of Poems and some of the uncollected later work (the 'Green Madrigals', 'Englyn', 'Premonition') that Roberts's distinctive, strange, and wonderful distillation occurs, as in the opening stanza of 'Ecliptic Blue':
In the cold when sea-mews flake the sky
With their curmurring fight for the eye
Of food on water blue, I think of snow.
I think alone.
Carcanet are to be praised, as on their similarly well-annotated and -introduced edition of George Oppen a few years ago, for their enterprise and courage in making such questioningly modernist writing available again. There is much in Roberts that should be pondered by, and which will prove instructive for, contemporary writers and readers.