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Delirium

Robert Minhinnick
ISBN-13: 
9781781726723
Publication Date: 
Monday, May 23, 2022
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£9.99

Recipient of Hay Festival Medal for Poetry.

This collection of short prose begins with a real 1945 diary kept in Burma, and Minhinnick telling stories to his mother in her care home.

It includes a series of pictures of war-stricken Baghdad, and vignettes about place and travel, dedicated to Jan Morris.

On the way we encounter a Middle East island devoted to sustainability, close ups of what clearing a family house reveals, and the writer’s intimately imagined Welsh sand dunes.

Minhinnick also watches the Stereophonics in Sydney, mourns the Golan Heights and meets a family of destitute Bedouins.

Throughout we encounter the Covid pandemic, threats of extinction, and images of post-apocalyptic life.

A breathless epic…

REVIEWS

Review by Wales Arts Review

Thursday, July 7, 2022

The Royal College of Psychiatry defines delirium as ‘a state of mental confusion that starts suddenly and is caused by a physical condition of some sort. You don’t know where you are, what time it is, or what’s happening to you.’ Reading multi-award-winning poet Robert Minhinnicks’ book of short prose Delirium certainly induces in the reader some of the emotional and perceptual disturbances that are symptomatic of the condition. The text is principally concerned with memory, both personal and familial, collective and national, and the surreal presence of these memories in the present-day context of a global pandemic and climate change. The clinical symptoms of delirium usually lift when the condition causing it gets better, however, in this case, modern life appears to be the root trigger, rendering humanity doomed to experience life in a perpetual state of disturbed attention and consciousness. Minhinnick makes the case for this misfortune in busy, fragmented prose, which is polyphonic in voice, time-bending in span, and a whirlwind to read.

 

 

The book is split into five tranches, opening with ‘Decima and Albert’, a dual narrative of the author’s father’s diary kept in Burma during WWII, and the present-tense account of Minhinnick’s efforts to communicate with his mother who is resident in a care home. The reader is immediately unsure which temporal thread they should occupy as the father is firmly in the past, the author in a surreal pandemic / UV-intense apocalypse present, and a mother who is untethered from both past and present:

             Sometimes the visitor is an animal and sometimes the visitor is someone

             she has seen or remembers from a past no-one else can share and 

             sometimes the visitor has the wrong name and sometimes there is no-one

             there when she says the visitor has arrived and sometimes I look into

             her eyes and wonder who is this looking back at me…  

The book continues in the shape of ‘The Extinction Circus’, a trip to the fairground in Porthcawl. Fairgrounds are liminal literary spaces where the normal rules of day-to-day life are suspended so that frequenters can immerse themselves in a magical realm, and Minhinnick succeeds in discombobulating the reader. However, masks, hygiene stations and hand sanitizers all root the narrative in the current pandemic and renders the experience somewhat less fantastical. During this section the author is also clearing out the family home, cataloguing, burning, throwing out recollections – surrendering memory to forgetting. This jump from childhood fairground to the sober adult experience of tying up loose ends at the end of one’s parents’ life is an effective slippage in the experience of time.

The next section titled ‘Billionaire’s Shortbread’ is, as the confection, a multi-layered approach to remembering. Flooded coastlines in north Africa, extinct exotic species, a malaria breakout and fossils all lend themselves to the phenomenon of climate crisis, but more poignantly, potions, spells and magic which are used to treat fevers have been wiped out. The use of magical realism gives a magnetism to the narrative beyond geographical statistics which allures the reader to engage with historical layers in order to better understand the future.  

The penultimate portion of the book, ‘Fellow Travellers’ dedicated to Jan Morris, is a genre-blended travel ghost story. Dead poets, Bedouin children, and ‘ghosts of Golan’ are some of the spirits of who’s narratives remain problematically stray. The author acknowledges the displacement of peoples as the human nightmare which lies at the crux of global unrest. 

            So many prayers but all is prey…seeing Damascus in the distance,

            and its dust drifting like dreams of great poetry or a feast for a

            returning son.

The book closes with a series of screenshots concerning ‘The Mother of All Battles, Iraq, 1991’, an unsettling and incomplete conclusion to a disorientating text.

Ultimately, reading Delirium is a demandingly baffling experience. The reader is taken through a series of historical cultural ruptures which form collective memory and identity, and a series of personal ruptures for the author which form his unstable sense of both exterior and interior self. The narrative is anchored in the present-day traumas of Covid and environmental volatility, and these may well be the cause of the pathology suggested in the title, a pathology which will not vanish until the root causes are addressed. Until then, we as a species will continue in a state of delirium, sleep-walking deeper into our self-made rupture. In his seminal text Memory, History, Forgetting Paul Ricoeur defines memory as ‘a struggle against forgetting’, and with this in mind, Delirium delivers on Ricoeurs’ idea that ‘the past is no longer the guarantor of the future: this is the principal reason for promoting memory as a dynamic field and as the sole promise of continuity’.

Review by Jon Gower, Nation.Cymru

Saturday, June 11, 2022

Robert Minhinnick's latest offering is no exception when it comes to setting a standard – a series of bright, burnished pieces of short prose which sparkle with all the intent and energy that might characterise a writer just starting out.

The language is often spot on. Sunflower seeds are ‘those white triangles like babies’ teeth,’ a sky is ‘thunderlit,’ ‘the ju-ju of jays leave me scanning empty air. Their syllables are scorn…’while the planet Mars is simply ‘red as a pheasant’s eye.’

The pieces range widely, both geographically and in terms of subject, from a Stereophonics gig in Sydney on a night of fruit bats cruising over the stage and when ‘the sky turns the colour of oxy acetylene’ through encounters with destitute desert bedouins and their children to fond memories of his parents.

The last of these owes much to a trove of diaries kept by his father in 1945, chronicling his time in Burma as the Second World War drew to a close, with recollections of five foot cobras and kraits and the unsettled days following the atomic detonation at Hiroshima.

The writer also visits his mother in a care home, feeding her porridge and telling her stories to counter the loneliness imposed by lockdown rules.

Celebrant of nature

Minhinnick loves the dune systems near his home and has been a celebrant of the nature found there and the history – including an old nunnery – buried underneath the shifting sand in many a poem and in novels such as Nia and Sea Holly.

They remain a constant backdrop to many of these pieces, with the dune-system’s seasonal lakes and their flowering bursts of summer orchids, not to mention migrating wheatears, the ‘line on the face like a lightning bolt. Kind of David Bowie cosmetic stripe…’

There’s an airy freshness to the passages of nature writing, not least in the writer’s mathematical musings about shorebirds as he tries to figure out the square root of sanderlings.

In a simply lovely description of deer blending in with their surroundings as a storm gathers, changing the light:

The does were chewing the blackthorn bark and were not expecting me, another ghost, but downwind, on the first morning in May. Three of them, and when they turned together those deer were spotted like vipers, or striped, I suppose, in perfect camouflage.

Yes, hidden, the deer. Out of hiding then vanishing into the blackthorn’s dirty ivory, yellowed in this latest hurricane they’re calling Storm Hannah.

But my favourite of these brisk and vivid nature illlustrations is to be found in a piece called, appropriately enough ‘Snipe, Vanishing’ which gives us ‘the stuttering song from the marsh goat, its zigzaggery over the dune slack’ and the idea that it’s ‘already hard to believe it was ever here. Snipe are more difficult to follow than a knight on a chessboard.’

Atmospheric reportage

The central section of the book, ‘Billionaires’ Shortbread’ is named after one of the many types of ice-cream in Porthcawl and is a work-in-progress, maybe a novel in the making, which offers us perpectives on the lives of characters such as Ffresni and Cai which interconnect and overlap.

It’s easy to imagine the evolution of a longer work based on them, part of the extended hymn in prose that Minhinnick is composing in his ongoing explorations of this otherwise undersung part of south Wales.

Minhinnick is a much-travelled writer and the concluding section of the book – dedicated to Jan Morris – gathers together some atmospheric reportage from the parched borderlands of Israel and Jordan and seeing springtime in Saskatechewan, when the snow is ‘like lines of barbed wire.’

He visits Iraq during wartime, views a long cat in its enclosure in the Bronx Zoo and the tells of the disputed territory of the Golan Heights where a fellow poet, Marwhan Makhoul wrote the ‘clouds are more fortunate than exiles.’

These tight prose pieces may seem like fragments, offcuts of a larger whole but then they settle into place like a well-thought out lapidary, reminding us of the way in which Minhinnick compares his dad’s ability to work stone with those of a poet as he, in turn, creates cynghanedd with words as his building blocks.

Asking who his father’s walls were for, he answers… ‘Other builders, of course, those few privy to the language with an instinct for stones, builders who might scan and then reread and maybe memorise his wall and understand its baffling syntax, the harmonies they heard within his craft.’

Which might not be a bad way to summarise the way in which Delirium works – small, beautiful gem-like fragments adding up to a satisfying, lapidary whole.

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