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On Becoming a Fish

Emily Hinshelwood
Publication Date: 
Monday, October 15, 2012
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"There are many strong poems in this collection which can help us understand our complex and historied relationship with our coastline and each other". Write Out Loud

Emily Hinshelwood’s new poetry collection, On Becoming a Fish was inspired by a series of walks around the 186 mile Pembrokeshire coastal path in West Wales, known for its spectacular views from cliffside paths skirting the Irish sea and the Bristol Channel. Deeply engaged with environmental issues through her work in community energy and climate change, the author is also a keen observer of human nature in the context of this beautiful coastline.

The poems feature: ghosts, quarries, shipwrecks, pirates, fishermen, sailors; the remnants of industrial industry as well as monuments from the past: neolithic burial sites, forts, caves, graves, memorials. Also present are characters conjured from history such as the ‘four hundred Welsh Women wearing stovepipe hats’ who foiled the last invasion of Britain at Carregwastad in 1797, as well as contemporary encounters: a retired fisherman, lifeboat crew, a lighthouse keeper and a skinny dipper.

The author says: “This collection explores ‘what happens at the boundary’ – not just the topographical boundary of sea meeting land – but the concept of boundary in itself: political borders, social barriers, environmental limits, historical divisions; the boundary between fact and fiction, between you and I.”


Review by Lucy Collins, Green Letters

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

This volume of poems takes its inspiration from the coast of Pembrokeshire in West Wales. Not only does it draw much of its material from a series of walks there, it also formally accommodates the dynamics of movement and rest, combining reflections on the natural world with imaginative excursions into history and folklore. This pattern yields different types of poems: some contemplating large themes, others recording passing observations. This ebb and flow of mood and purpose is significant tot he larger aims of the collection – its testing of creative territory invites us to think again about the relationship between land and sea, present and past, self and other.
The distinct yet related representations of landscape in the book are exemplified in the opening two poems: the first, ‘Sandscape After Hours’ reflects on how a sandy beach brings the experiences of strangers into temporary proximity, as traces of different lives are super-imposed on one another. This image introduces what will be a key impression of the volume as a whole; a sense of fleeting connection from which pleasure and inspiration can derive. For metaphors of endurance we must turn to the second poem, in which the rocks of ‘Westphalian’ become a dynamic force; a similar sense of torsion occurs to greater effect in ‘Lady Cave Anticline’ – ‘She is still relatively young, /though pressured on all sides/ forced to bend and arch’. Everywhere in the volume relative degrees of natural force are evident, made manifest in geological solidity and in the endlessly changing face of the sea. For Hinshelwood, these two states – the fixed and the mutable – cannot be separated, and the poems contemplate the difficulty of accommodating both in language. This difficulty accounts for the considerable shifts in tone that occur throughout the book, from amused observation to deeper reflection. The accomplished title poem itself enacts this transition, from the initial conversational idiom to the closing meditation on a new experience of embodiment.
Acts of witness are important: we are always aware of the speaking subject – a walker on the shore who is conscious not only of nature as inspiration but of herself as a figure in that landscape, especially in such poems as the light ‘Skinny Dipping’ and the sombre ‘Unexpectedly’. This awareness emerges again in ‘Bazaar’ where self and the other merge through the mirrored space in which the speaker browses. At times, this self-consciousness can come between reader and experience, but often it helps us to see the space in a new way, such as the opening of ‘Intent’:

In this puddle, stretched right to left
across the sand, blue sky is reflected.
White clouds hare over the ground.
A girl splashes through air
her plaits swinging.

The angle of view is all-important here, as it is in ‘Daughter’where the separateness of the girl staring through the window into the dark interior of the bar is made more resonant by the emptiness of the final frame: ‘the square of light where you had been’. It is in this tension between enduring emotion and feleting impression that On Becoming a Fish acknowledges the contingent nature of all experiences, and the space and time needed to explore them.


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