Air Histories

Christopher Meredith
Publication Date: 
Sunday, May 26, 2013
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Christopher Meredith’s Air Histories starts in the Stone Age and ends in the future. It’s marked by formal diversity and a wide range of subjects, with the personal alongside the impersonal and the experimental alongside well-known forms, as well as including some translations from the Welsh. Throughout it engages the rich meanings of its title, touching on the elemental and on historical time, as well as music and story, meditating on human creativity and its fallibilities from knapping an arrowhead to playing the fiddle or making a guitar. Nature is a touchstone, particularly the Black Mountains, near the author’s home, but also often seen ‘aslant’ as in ‘Seeing the Birds’ where sparrows seem suddenly fierce as eagles.


Review By Jeremy Hooker, Planet The Welsh Internationalist

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Christopher Meredith's fourth book of poems is as playful as it is profound. In the razzmatazz of 'Thaws and disappointments', for example, he updates John Donne:

Only that idiot toff the sun

reels through the drunken windows


his blazer loud with stripes

all laughing gas, no poise.


The book opens with a shaped poem, 'Arrowhead', and it includes poems in a variety of forms, such as villanelle, narrative, and ballad. 'At Colonus', consisting of variations on a line from Dorothy Edwards, is a concrete poem which gives visual form to psychological disintegration. Four poems in Welsh together with English versions add to the book's variety. But far more than poetic variety is at issue in Meredith's deployment of his Welsh resources, for this is a book that sounds the Welshness of its domain in depth.


The book's title, with its many possible meanings, is intriguing. 'History' points to Meredith as a Welsh realist, a writer with a strong sense of family roots in Tredegar and the surrounding area, and one who knows his history from its shaping effects on the land and people and language. He has never been a naïve realist, however. As both poet and novelist, he is an experimental, innovative writer, adopting a different form for each novel, and often for each poem as well. He knows the harshness of the Welsh historical experience, but he is equally alive to the part played by myth and dream in the making of Wales, and therefore of himself as a Welshman:

And then there's the closed steeple

of this mountain

where you stand now

where the musician led the children

where kings lie asleep.

This is the dreaming attic of the house

familiar and strange

where you grew up

('Under he mountain')


'Air' in these poems can carry the most deathly connotations, as in 'The slurry pond': "coal surfacing, becoming air/edge of shadow on a lung'. But it is also associated in a number of poems with music. Indeed, music is the central motif of the collection, which includes a love poem addressed to the guitar-an  erotic fire burns in Meredith's poems generally- and the tour de force, which justifies its extravagant title: 'The guitar maker Antonio de Torres in old age described by the priest Juan Martínez Sirvent'.

Meredith is a thinking writer. One finds no clichés in his novels and poems, Welsh or otherwise. The title of his previous book of poems, The Meaning of Flight, has a special significance in this respect. He is acutely aware of process, of what goes to the making of a landscape or a people or a personal identity, of life as flight, the winged phenomenon, rather than the finished corpse ready for autopsy. He rewrites history rather than writing it, as in his reconstruction of a medieval Welsh poet in his novel Griffri. The note to 'Borderland' provides a good idea of the way in which his poetic mind, his wit, works:' Ffin is the Welsh for border. It occurs inside diffiniad which means definition, and in Capel Y Ffin, a place in the Black Mountains'. This nicely places wordplay around meaning in relation to an historical landscape. It also puts an individual imaginative stamp on what might otherwise seem an overused poetic location, one bearing the mark of David Jones and other poets and artists. By such means Meredith enters firmly into his own home area, remaking it, with a responsible eye on lived history, as his imaginative world.

A key idea of Air Histories is expressed epigrammatically in 'Borderland': 'edges are where meanings happen'. The principal landscape of the poems is the Black Mountains, the March, or edgeland. This historical landscape is also rich in metaphorical possibilities, which the poems draw on playfully and profoundly. This is where 'meanings happen', as in meetings between history and music. There is a grittiness in Christopher Meredith's imagination that bespeaks his realism, which includes both awareness of the damage done to his historical Welsh community and his sense of mortality. But his playfulness-his wit- relate also to a strong celebratory impulse, which is especially present in his poems about music and musicians. The richness of metaphor that he finds at 'the edge', in the Black Mountains, and in transactions between history and music, means that this is not a book that lends itself to summary. The poet as musician leads us into a world that is 'familiar and strange'. Following him is a most enjoyable experience.

Jeremy Hooker is Emeritus Professor of English at the Unversity of South Wales and was recently elected Fellow of The Learned Society of Wales. 



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Anonymous's picture

Review from Elsewhere

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Firstly, I need to declare my lack of Welsh to deal with certain poems in Air Histories. However, I find it particularly clever of Meredith to have a poem dealing with translation – ‘Y grib / Ridge’ – which states in English translated from Welsh:

In English it’s the dragon’s back, a name
for those who like their monsters
safely mythic, tame.

Here, the poet seems to be playing with us – taking language/ translation to high and, dare I say, ‘meta’ levels. Air is clearly a strong theme of the collection, with Daedalus soaring in his paramotor, but many of these poems are also grounded and earthed in the elements, as can be seen in ‘Earth Air’:

This piece of earth’s a billowing pavilion
you never quite peg down.
Odd corners have a stone church hammered in -
One day the earth will wake and stretch and sigh
and each church will pop its button
and she’ll fly.

One of the main achievements of these poems is to create a sense of aerial over-view – of vision that sees the connectedness of many things: the dead to the living, the inventions and tools of the dead in the hands of the living, the dead and the living in the landscape:

If woman’s blood can sing to moon,
when wind’s breath kills the rain on mountain
grass may walk again through stone and earth.

Meredith’s gaze, like the red kites in a number of his poems, does not dwell in one place too long and this gives rise to a collection of great variety and texture. With this, however, comes the occasional feeling of a lack in focus and a surface fleetingness. Some poems here struggle to achieve the air-borne quality of others, such as concrete experiments in ‘Arrowhead’ and ‘At Colonus’ which comes across at times as contrived – ‘Arrowhead’ seems to break and manipulate the words to fit its shape. That said, I sensed in these poems the same seriousness and playfulness as in Edwin Morgan’s concrete poetry of the 1960s. But even Morgan, with his ‘Little Blue Blue’, was not immune to accusations of clever-cleverness which I find particularly knowingly applied here in poems like ‘An outline description of Nihilia’:

The colours of the national flag are black
and black.
The citizens are mute.
The population of Nihilia is zero.
The country’s chief product is nothing.

However, any criticisms of such poems must be put aside when considering other poems in this collection as good as ‘The ones with the white hats’ which is a poem set in a dystopian future and ‘Daniel’s Piano’ – a poem in a similar vein, set in a future brutal regime where violence is disguised under a layer of polite chatter:

Daniel’s house stands
on a village they emptied.

Nobody talks of the village’s going.
Its old name is silenced.

Simon is a good man. His manner gentle.
The guests discuss poetry. Nobody plays.

Set alongside these more menacing poems are a series of poems about guitars and song and the attempts of the poet, craftsman and musician to get their song out there and heard in the midst of such struggle. It is these poems which make the collection one to keep returning to in works of music and witness, such as ‘The guitar maker Antonio de Torres in old age described by the priest Juan Martinez Sirvent’:

A pinch of air
was all he had.

That was fifty years ago and now
his work is his witness.
If witness was my work
perhaps I had come to terms with mysteries
or perhaps I failed.

Richie McCaffery

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16/01/2014 - 15:34
Anonymous's picture

Orbis Review

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Presented in both Welsh and English, the core leitmotifs here are life and death. The skeleton is landscape: mountains, valleys, rivers, and he assimilates the natural world; fleshing it into words. The book is eclectic, including regular traditional forms, concrete poetry and free verse. Each is in the air of the page to maximum visual effect, yet like the natural world, the sounds are foregrounded. Musicality is present in rhythm and imagery; repeated vowels, both short and long, seize or protract attention. Much is onomatopoeic. In ‘Trees on Castell Dinas’, the trees in winter are ‘bombbursts of filaments ...with ogive writhing ... veins of the wind’.
Besides ‘bombbursts, portmanteaux include: ‘branchsifted’, ‘riversmoke’,
‘snowdust’, neologisms as fluid as if they’ve always existed. Often, there’s the tenor of myth. Life is seen retrospectively from an objective stance, expressing the ordinary in an extraordinary way; tired images seen through the freshness of awe, pictures evoked in visceral detail: a sinuously arranged stream of lines, elusive fishiness defined in the oilpaint of words: ‘two fish ... coil ... the soft oiled metal of
their slipknot / tying and untying / mouthing agelong quietness.’ (‘Think of this’). The oral tradition is maintained in contemporary form as rap: ‘Twobeat deathsong’, iambic life and death, is about the loss of two parents. Many pieces have a sense of transience and fleetingness, of the need to live with awareness, while yearning for the perfection which can never be achieved. From ‘We dream of snow’, snow being symbolic of transience: ‘we ... affect ... to recall ... a / wistful dream of a
dream of going back / to some perfected valley’. And the inevitability of the cyclical: of life, death, a returning to earth.

In the bigger picture: ‘grass may walk again through stone and earth’ (‘What earth thought’). In the microcosm, ostensibly about music, but the subtext is life: how close we get to something right that’s made of air and time and understands its own brief thrill between two silences.


It’s the essence of the collection. These contemplative, sentient poems are an experience, alive with awareness of death.


19/12/2013 - 11:37
Anonymous's picture

Review from Write out Loud

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Air Histories, the latest collection from poet and novelist Christopher Meredith, is a protean work, shifting from archaeological landscapes to Oedipus. In this it reflects the poet’s career as poet, novelist, playwright, reviewer and teacher. Born and brought up in Tredegar, Meredith trained as a teacher and worked as a labourer in the steel industry. His first novel, Shifts, set against the decline of steel in south Wales, has remained in print since its first publication in 1988. Meredith now reads and lectures widely and teaches at the University of South Wales.

As with the air of the title, Air Histories is a difficult book to get a grip on. Many of the poems are outstanding and one, ‘The Record Keepers’ was highly commended in this year’s Forward Prize. Yet while poems such as ‘This Late’, ‘Guitar’, or ‘Alchemical’ are breath-taking as individual poems, the variety in content and form can make this collection difficult to handle. Early poems speak of air, earth and Wales and then more characters and subjects appear: Spanish priests and ladies, musical instruments, poems of war and ageing, poems in Welsh and English.

Air is Meredith’s best milieu: when he writes of air the words soar like the instruments he returns to again and again. As Edward Thomas beseeches in his poem ‘Words’ those “English words” have chosen Meredith to sing through – ironically perhaps, given Meredith’s Welsh background. So in ‘Borderland’: “where skylarks climb across an earth’s turn/to air” or in ‘Ridge’: “falling/and swelling/to where that edge/of upland/bites/the sky”. The line breaks and staggered text of this last poem replicate not only the mountain it describes but also the swooping musicality of the arpeggio it evokes.

One reason these poems are so successful is the delicate precision of the description. In ‘The fiddler’s frown’ Meredith writes how this frown comes from below and “spreading its sudden branches/like an electric tree/through all of him/bending him leftward tense and tender”. The effect on the reader is almost physical. This precision works well in poems about musical instruments - themselves delicate objects brought alive by the eponymous air - such as ‘Daniel’s Piano’ and the aforementioned ‘Guitar’. This is perhaps the best example of Meredith’s interest in the subtle interplay between music and sex: “I miss the glide of your mahogany/neck under the ball of my thumb” and “how close we get to something right/that’s made of air and time//and understands its own brief thrill/between two silences.”

There are some powerful poems here too about ageing, disease and loss. ‘Alchemical’ speaks of a woman who has forgotten everything but can still perform the “casual miracle” of making gravy: “the fluttering of the tablespoon/snowing flour”. And ‘This Late’ captures the writer’s visceral realisation of the unchanging circle of existence against a backdrop of ever-changing everyday life, the “raindrenched Clios, Subarus”. In other poems people and the earth itself take on a threatening tone such as ‘Not quite Apollo’, with some tourists caught in a mysteriously menacing landscape where “huge and curious rocks were hunched/above some secret place.”

As with the subject matter, these poems range widely in style and form. There are several poems in both Welsh and English, the pagination suggesting they were written in Welsh first. Most are at least a page long and stanzas range from couplets to chunky blocks of text although line-lengths tend to be short. In one poem, ‘At Colonus’, words are completely broken, scattered over the page like Morse code. The most successful poems create the precision discussed above through a blend of skilful alliteration and line breaks. ‘Think of this’, a sumptuous description of coiling fish, begins: “Think of this:/two fish that hang/under the hammered/amber/of the stream”. The “hang” of the second line is replicated in the delaying line breaks of the following lines.

Overall however this reader was left frustrated by Air Histories and its variety. Do poetry collections have to have a theme? Themed collections are en vogue, as evidenced by prize-winning collections like Stag’s Leap or Bee Journal. Yet even if these books take the idea to an extreme, it could be argued that to succeed as a collection poems must have a synergy, a fellow feeling about them. Plath’s Ariel contains poems about children, bees and fever, amongst other things, but their ultimate subject is the poet’s psychic landscape. Properly arranged slighter poems can gain power from those surrounding them and a collection can become more than the sum of its parts. Instead, in Air Histories, some poems can work to undermine others.

Cato Pedder

full review:

18/11/2013 - 15:43
Anonymous's picture

Review from Stride Magazine

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The forms in Christopher Meredith's 'Air Histories' are more various, his imagination and language more scatty; if he's a poet of the everyday - and I think he is - it comes from being manic perhaps or he's having fun or his everyday at heart is perceived differently, or all three. A few poems are in Welsh and English - translated which way round he doesn't say (the paging suggests the Welsh first). He was born in 1954 in South Wales. His poems are harder to select for a typical purpose and matter and even voice and, as with many an offbeat maker, there is passion there, in his case for the good of the earth, for people.

If there is a drivenness it is the quest, the going out there to find out, and with such poetry it isn't obvious whether it is driven first of all by language or by visual image or by an intellectual idea. It seems right to say by all three and more, but I imagine there's a particular kind of quest here: in the ache, in the dream; one senses of course in Hilary Menos's poems a vocation, and it's here, too, differently. One if his shorter poems, titled 'Earth air':

This piece of earth's a billowing pavilion
you never quite peg down.
Odd corners have a stone church hammered in -
Patricio, Cwmiou, Cwmdu, Capel y Fin.
But their grip's uncertain.

One day the earth will wake and stretch and sigh
and each church will pop its button
and she'll fly.

He makes more extreme verbal experiments - not essentially new but newly to be worked with - such as 'At Colonus', Variations on a line by Dorothy Edwards', three pages beginning with,

N a
m e
m y t est
A t r y

To quote two lines from a page-long poem called 'Daniel's piano' -

Daniel's piano stands next to the table.
Its keyboard is open. It's smile is yellow.

might stand for what is more traditionally surprising here: seems strange because everyday talk and reporting is often tedious, but this is language, this is human being.

–David Hart

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18/11/2013 - 15:05
Anonymous's picture

Review from the Independent

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“Edges are where meanings happen,” writes the Welsh poet Christopher Meredith in his fourth collection Air Histories (Seren £8.99). The poem is “Borderland”, and you need the note to make full sense of it: “Ffin is the Welsh for border. It occurs inside diffiniad, which means definition and in Capel y Ffin, a place in the Black Mountains.” Borders are firmly outlined, and the poem is tightly constructed with a strict rhyme scheme; yet borders are also hazy and liminal (half-rhymes allowed). Meredith also likes concrete poems – here’s one in the shape of an arrowhead – and experimentation, though the confetti of “At Colonus” is largely space wasted. “Thaws and Disappointments” is a blinding play of images on a theme of winter dawn. The bare trees resemble “leggy fashion plates in sable tights” as fields like “Terry-thomas tweeds / turn silverplate, George Clooney sleek”, while the sun is an “idiot toff”. To the sardonic poet, it’s all rather naff. “The sky pulls on those criss-cross jet trails like / the diamonds on a pimpish golfer’s socks.”

–Suzi Feay

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18/11/2013 - 12:37