Zoë Skoulding, Poetry Wales, Volume 41, Number 4
The current - and overdue - renewal of interest in Lynette Roberts's work has been gathering momentum for some time, but when I first came across an extract from Gods With Stainless Ears in Keith Tuma's 2001 Anthology of Twentieth Century British and Irish Poetry, the glacial strangeness of lines like these seemed to come out of nowhere:
Air white with cold. Cycloid wind prevails.
On ichnolithic plain where no step stirs
And winter hardens into plate of ice:
Shoots an anthracite glitter of death
From their eyes, - these men shine darkly.
This collection brings to light work that has been out of print for half a century, allowing a new consideration of a writer whose influence, despite the efforts of enthusiasts like Tony Conran, John Pikoulis, John Wilkinson and Nigel Wheale, has been almost entirely submerged. Patrick McGuinness's edition is both necessary and exciting. Because Roberts has not been widely read, her influence has not been assimilated in the way that those of her more famous contemporaries have been. Nevertheless, her poetry opens up possibilities for experiment that have been too little explored in Wales, and raises issues that remain highly relevant, exploring as it does the construction of an identity between cultures and the effects on language of global communication.
Born in 1909 in Argentina of Welsh-descended Australian parents, Roberts wrote most of the poems published here in the 1940s; in 1956 she had a breakdown, became a Jehovah's Witness and stopped writing for the rest of her life. McGuiness calls her an 'insider's outsider', and explains her connection with the better-known literary figures of the mid-twentieth century. She was a friend of Robert Graves; Dylan Thomas was best man at her wedding to Keidrych Rhys, poet and editor of Wales; her work was highly praised by T.S. Eliot and published by Faber. The 'disappearance' of her reputation is therefore something of a mystery. It could be just an accident of timing: her war poetry was not published until 1951, when literary fashion had moved on from those concerns, and the predominance of the Movement poets from the mid-fifties meant that clarity was favoured over the kind of linguistic intoxication to be found in Roberts's best work. Living far from London can't have helped, but in any case she tended to keep her distance from groups with whom she might have been identified. While her isolation led to her work having been forgotten by the mainstream, it also means that she can sound like a new voice at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Her work is of its time but its relationship with our own is different from that of R.S. Thomas or even David Jones, with whom she shares some similarities as a visionary, modernist and war poet.
This edition includes the two collections published by Roberts in her lifetime, Poems, from 1944 and Gods With Stainless Ears from 1951. There's also a selection of previously uncollected or unpublished poems, together with an appendix including a radio talk on Roberts's South American poems, a ballad, 'El Dorado', and an article on Patagonia. The poetry in the later sections is not even quality but it's nearly always interesting, and its inclusion reveals Roberts as a writer who was too ambitious not to take risks. McGuinness's contribution as editor is to supplement Roberts's assiduous and quirky notes with some helpful ones of his own, and to provide an excellent introduction that engages warmly with Roberts's unusual life as well as with the critical content of her work. That's the one benefit of having had to wait so long for this book; this is not always easy or immediate poetry and it's an advantage to approach it with some background.
Roberts's most important writing was done in Wales, though she only moved here - to a cottage in Llanybri - at the age of thirty. She adopted aspects of the Welsh-language literary tradition with an outsider's temerity. Although she couldn't read Welsh, she used Welsh poems as epigraphs and echoed Welsh forms; overriding the complexity of her own cultural identity, she could address poems to "Cambria" or "my people". McGuinness explains in his introduction how 'she was Welsh by a combination of choice and imaginative will. "Poem from Llanybri" is a cosmopolitan's claim to a rooted culture that is also a culture of rootedness. This poem takes the form of an invitation to Alun Lewis to visit her, enacting gestures of hospitality: "At noon-day / I will offer you a choice bowl of cawl / Served with a 'lover's' spoon", and it end:
You must come - start this pilgrimage
Can you come? - send an ode or an elegy
In the old way and raise our heritage.
While she appeals to 'heritage', this is something that has to be performed and recreated in the present. This poem has been widely anthologised, and taken in isolation it could be seen as a celebration of the simple life and traditional rural values. However, its deliberate future tense is as much an idealised projection of herself into a culture as an engagement with the past.
Roberts's relationship with Llanybri was far from simple. 'Raw Salt on Eye' describes her life alone in the village during the war while her husband was away:
Stone village, who would know that I lived alone:
Who would know that I suffered a two-edged pain,
Was accused of spycraft to full innate minds with loam,
Was felled innocent, suffered a stain as rare as Cain's.
Her language reflects her alienation, 'spycraft'', for example, making her doubly suspect as witch and spy. She often makes the language sound foreign because of the way she echoes archaic or very localised speech patterns, as in the phrase 'who would know.' Similarly, 'full innate' seems unusual because 'full' appears to be an adverb, a usage that survives in a phrase like 'full well', but which sounds idiosyncratic in another context. The phrase is resolved musically by the repetition of its sounds in 'felled innocent', so that jarring dislocation of meaning draws attention to the texture and rhythm of language as it might be heard, overheard, or mis-heard. At the same time, the line suggests minds full of loam so the syntactical oddness also turns the experience of alienation around, making the insularity of the villagers seem as strange as they find the speaker to be.
It's a pity that there's a misprint in this poem ('hum' for 'him'), but proof-reading this book can't have been an easy task: as well as the syntactical play there's a magpie delight in picking up words from remote sources and watching them glint in unexpected contexts (T.S. Eliot expressed doubts about some of her more obscure lexical choices, taking particular exception to "zebeline".) There are also neologisms like "mimicrying", used of a butterfly in 'Royal Mail' and explained in the notes as conveying "both sorry and mimicking".
Roberts writes out of the modernist condition of estrangement, but also out of the condition, familiar in Wales, of being between languages. This is intensified in her case by her South American background. 'Royal Mail' is a memory of Sao Paulo from the perspective of the "damp and stony stare" of a Welsh village, in which the remembered pace becomes disorientatingly vivid: "the coffee coloured house with its tarmac roof / And spray of tangerine berries." It's hard to imagine the colours here without their associated tastes and smells intruding, so the meaning is destabilized as it slips from sense to sense. The poem builds up to a kind of synaesthetic overload with heat, smell and sound converging:
The stench of wine-wood,
Saw-dust, maize flour, and basket of birds,
With the ear-tipped 'Molto bien signorit' and the hot mood
Blazing from the drooping noon.
The sounds of the Spanish phrase are echoed in the English words as if the two language have melted together in the heat of the memory. The poem ends with a longing to "return to my native surf / And feel again the urgency of sun and soil," which, as with 'Poem from Llanybri', looks like a firmer indication of belonging than it actually is, given that it's hard to say exactly what "native surf" might be.
The dense linguistic surface of Roberts work is immediately striking in Gods With Stainless Ears, subtitled 'A Heroic Poem'. It was written in Llanybri between 1941 and 1943 and the poem is located in the bay and the village, but it's a rural landscape that is shot through with awareness of global conflict and its mythical dimensions:
In fear of fate, flying into land Orcadian birds pair
And peal away like praying hands; bare
Aluminium beak to clinic air; frame
Soldier lonely whistling in full corridor train,
Ishmaelites wailing through the windowpane,
The vertiginous juxtaposition of perspectives is partly achieved through the clash of registers, "aluminium", for example, allowing the bird to morph into an aircraft. It's also the result of a strong emphasis on the visual: Roberts was a painter though, her writing has closer parallels with paintings by Paul Nash, who, like Roberts, was influenced by film in his control of space and form. Newsreel photography was one of the things that made the Second world War seem immediate and all-pervasive and Roberts explains: 'when I wrote this poem, the scenes and visions ran before me like a newsreel. The galley sheets on which I wrote the first draft may be partly responsible for the occurrence. But the poem was written for filming, especially Part V, where the soldier and his girl walk in fourth dimension among the clouds and visit the various outer strata of our planet.' Roberts was determined to engage with everything new, not just in a quest for aesthetic novelty but because she saw poetry's role as being to tackle the modern world on its own terms and in its own language: in her letter to Robert Graves, quoted in the introduction, she says she set out 'to use words inn relation to today - both with regard to sound (i.e. discords ugly grating words) & meaning.'
She notices how "OK saltates the cymric hearth and / BBC blares from Bermondsey tongue," and how "old women die folded in skirts, their culture / Entombed"; but she's always listening to the particularities of speech around her - not just Welsh but also the variations within English as it is locally spoken. McGuinness notes a parallel with William Carlos Williams, and as in 'Paterson', direct speech allows the poem to include different perspectives, showing an understanding of a place as an intersection of physical, social and cultural factors at a particular time. However, although her perspective is partly that of a woman in one particular wartime village, her voracious inclusion of scientific, technological and archaic registers extends the scope of her writing far beyond a personal, domestic or local focus.
Roberts is always aware of the past, but she also looks forward to a technological post-war future, registering its alien coldness while exploring its lexical possibilities:
We by centrifugal force... rose softly...
Faded from bloodsight. We, he and I ran
On to a steel escalator, the white
Electric sun drilling down on the cubed ice;
our cyanite flesh chilled on aluminium
The imagery is unnatural and artificial, but for a writer whose work is located between cultures, there isn't a 'natural' way of seeing the world, only a choice of different perspectives. This is perhaps what enables her to approach poetry from so many different angles, moving restlessly between the influences of early Welsh poems and newsreel photography, between Argentina and Wales, and between acute visual and verbal sensibilities. It's complex work, but we live in a more complex world than most people could imagine in 1951; if Roberts was in some ways ahead of her time, the time to read her is now.