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Gen

Jonathan Edwards
ISBN-13: 
9781781724736
Publication Date: 
Thursday, November 1, 2018
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‘As always Edwards' writing is at once bold and sweeping whilst also managing to maintain a homely and intimate voice that feels personal​.’ – Ben Ray

Gen is a book of lions and rock stars, street parties and servants, postmen and voices. In the opening sequence’s exploration of youth and young manhood, the author sets his own Valleys upbringing against the ’50s youth of his parents and the experience of a range of pop culture icons, including Kurt Cobain and Harry Houdini. These poems give way to a sequence of monologues and character sketches, giving us the lives of crocodiles and food testers, pianists and retail park trees. Other poems place a Valleys village and the characters who live in it alongside explorations of Welsh history and prehistory, and the collection concludes with a selection of sometimes witty, sometimes heartfelt love poems.

With his characteristic humour, warmth, formal range and swaggering music, Jonathan Edwards delivers a worthy follow-up to his popular and critically-lauded debut.

 

REVIEWS

Review by Steve Whitaker, Yorkshire Times

Sunday, December 9, 2018

 

It would be a bloody poor heart that didn’t warm to Jonathan Edwards’ poetry. When, with My Family and Other Superheroes, he walked away with the Costa Poetry Prize in 2014, no one should have been surprised. 

If awards, in the end, are a subjective judgement on the merits of a body of work – difficult, I guess, to see the wood for the trees in a dense and fertile forest – the casting vote goes to a poet whose feel for common humanity confers a vital edge above and beyond his self-evident formal and structural skills, thematic strengths and prismatic insight.

And humour. Edwards’ brilliant realisations of past and present personal are indivisibly bound up with comedy of the sardonic and ironic type, a comedy that is borne of the situations and circumstances of uncelebrated lives. 

His family histories, the rendering of his native South Walian culture, gives parity to a love evoked in ordinariness; he is a wonderful celebrant of bonding, of cohesion, of all that home means. 

We should be grateful for it: turning his back on self-pity – he is an agent of ‘we’ rather than ‘I’ – Edwards performs the kind of ministry for the microcosm of Newport and its hinterland that E.P. Thompson did for the emergent working classes.

The result is breathtaking. Gen adds further richness to the tapestry of My Family; once again, we are able to construct a canvas of wider meaning from a catalogue of local nuances, to detect an antenna whose settings are fixed, mostly, in the human world. Privy to the perambulations of a mind whose eye responds kaleidoscopically to stimuli of colour and texture, we look outwards as Edwards’ looks outwards.

And, beyond the glorious, the gorgeous and the accidental, looking ‘outwards’ may be a foray into imagined worlds, whose object may embody a passing juvenile interest, or have been sparked by a television memory. Here, it is significant that the poet sometimes reverses the telescope of perception by, as it were, poeticising on behalf of shadowy, unsung figures who support the flimsy framework of notoriety, or observe its risibility.

Edwards’ observations are instinctively partial, whether in behalf of the grandfather who conducts his own teenage ‘entertainment’ whilst an enchained Houdini leaps off Newport Bridge, or a minder who warms his master’s seat in advance of a performance at Covent Garden. 

This last service, given uncomplainingly by a servant who is embarrassed by the pejorative blandishments of others as to his master’s weaknesses, falls away in the ironic volte face of a final, isolated line’s perfect pentameter: ‘the sound of clapping, listen, dogs my heels’. (‘Servant Minding a Seat for his Master Before a Performance of The Rivals, Covent Garden Theatre, 1775’) 

The oblation is repeated by the human guinea pig in ‘Food Tester’ whose existence is circumscribed by a sense of careful duty, using, in the first person narrator’s memorable phrase, ‘the science of my instinct’. And again, by the Welsh flag hanging in Richard Burton’s dressing room, whose anthropomorphic insight is a startlingly acute mirror to the actor’s solipsistic vacuum:
 

‘as he steps through the door, I flutter faintly
in the air conditioning, raise a paw,
but nothing helps. His born pretender’s breath
goes on wheezing Myself, myself, myself.’
(‘Welsh Flag on the Wall of Richard Burton’s Dressing Room, Broadway, 1983’)

If the susceptibility of this poet to celebration and homage fights mercifully shy of bathos, his natural optimism and instinct for clarity lend themselves to song. Whether a slave to loves lost, endured or in the abstract, Edwards’ poetic style is metrically, and sometimes rhythmically, musical. 

The wishful thinking of ‘On Hearing You have Lost Your New Love’ and the faux-insouciance of ‘When I’m Gone’, are measures of love which synthesise in the sensible pragmatism of ‘Girl’, whose invocation to ordinariness reminds of Larkin’s ‘Born Yesterday’. Why, the narrator asks, would a hopelessly idealised version of a human being be of relevance when the girl before him is a rhapsodic emotional muse, the ironic object, in the end, of a sonnet he would otherwise deny:
 

‘and there’s nothing in her to lionise,
to drive me look to sonnets or to murder,

or words to tell you what she’s really like.
Or words to say how much that bloody matters.’

That the poem ‘Song’ performs the same service for yearning as Oleta Adams’ commercial pop hit ‘Get here if you can’ did for US serviceman in the first Gulf War need not be a derogation of its qualities. Edwards’ wears a magpie’s proclivity for picking up contemporary cultural references even if subconsciously, and his invocation is characteristically absurd and ineffably, joyfully funny: ‘So come, by raft, by hovercraft, or do / a goose-fat, nose-clipped, brave or water-winged / breaststroke through the sea that’s parting me / from you’.

Edwards’ easy iambics suit the conversational style of his delivery. Where dialogue is not engaged, one sometimes hears the intrusion of extraneous voices as though the poems encouraged the vocal presence of others. The public nature of the poetics – the colour and vibrancy, the piquancy of character – yields a parallel landscape where the sheer joy of unfolding words is corollary to the shaping of a theatre of imagined voices. Dylan Thomas evoked a similar phenomenon in Under Milk Wood, and the received impression is a far from cacophonous fillip to the profoundly social aspect of Edwards’ thinking.

He is a noisy poet. Never more so than when he actively directs his readers’ attention to events on the page rather as a comedian would do with an audience, and in so doing underwrites the uncertain nature of the act of poetic creation. Reaching out to reader as co-conspirator to his narrative’s subtext, Edwards’ narrator reinforces meaning. ‘Listen’, ‘Look’, and ‘There’ are frequently deployed instructively, as if we, too, were party to the unfolding tableau.

Edwards’ very direct emotional relationship with his subjects renders temporal positioning and tense immaterial. He sees, or tries to see the world as others may have seen it, and frequently hangs his hat in the landscape of a past as if personally experienced, and in a retrospective present. 

Manifesting a preternatural skill for imagining the architectonics of place and time, his poems convince completely, as though authenticity could be distilled in a heady brew of elegiac love. The moving ‘My Mother Cuts Her Arm, 1955’ is built entirely on a solid emotional foundation. Here, Edwards’ mental camera roves over an urban terrace of postwar austerity, and picks out the detail of an accidental fall on garden railings. Illuminated in the aura of the loving father, who hacksaws every sharp edge off to prevent recurrence, the poem is a paean to paternal care, returned now, in a mother’s backward glance:
 

‘Sixty years, and standing in her kitchen,
she looks down now out of the bedroom window
to see her father. Now he straightens up
to speak to Mrs Morris from next door,
gesticulating with his shining hacksaw.
now the setting sun, that mid-May moment,
catches his glasses, makes him brilliant.’

This poem is one of a short series of family memory observations, each of which adds a further layer to a process of bonding. The evocative ‘My Father Buying Sweets, 1956’ expresses an imagined visit, by the father figure, to a sweet shop, and draws anticipation, juvenile pleasure and contemporary detail into one charmed circle. 

Edwards’ feel for the simple salivatory moment is astonishingly persuasive, enabling the reader to inhabit both shop and biddable imagination, and to turn a blind eye, as insouciant children do, to the dental consequences of chocolate toffees, when mouths will ‘bloom with fillings’. 

But most, the emotional weight of this well-cut slice of observation recalls Tony Harrison’s sonnet ‘Continuous’, whose remembrance of love in the simple sense of his father’s presence - cupping the young Harrison’s choc ice at the cinema – enshrines a bond. For Edwards, the best and only expression of a bond forged in a furnace of sensory connection is affectingly monosyllabic:
 

‘    we can watch him
lift one gleaming thing from the bag, unwrap it,
raise it to his lips –
so I can taste all the butter, cream, the sugar,
here, on the tip of my tongue.’

This is what this poet does: invites the reader to feel and to taste his expression of family cohesion through an arc of searing memory. And he is adept, too, at describing the darker shades of Welsh history in dynamic images which test, and impressively broach, the bounds of the feasible. Where Edwards can suggest mood in compelling metaphors – elsewhere, the crispness of autumn leaves is ‘deep fried’ and hanging baskets are ‘lynched’ – he finds an outlet for a more general sense of displacement and tragedy in a series of haunting poems.

The animated triptych of poems about Tryweryn, the Welsh village drowned to feed the gaping maw of Liverpool with reservoir water in 1965, is a moving homage to the voiceless whose needs are submerged by bigger interests. 

‘Cofiwch Dryweryn’ – takes a wide-eyed amphibious dive through imagined streets, whilst the harrowing ‘The Remains’ details the removal of coffins from the village cemetery to their new home on the bank of the lake. More tellingly still are the families who chose to leave their loved ones undisturbed, now forever beyond reach, ‘buried under gravel, concrete’, water.

The burial of Aberfan beneath a landslide of slag is another metaphor for the subsuming of the powerless by the powerful, the powerless with whom Edwards instinctively sides. The poet’s simple and beautiful rendering of the easy innocence of a new school day – ‘spring-limbed’ kids who ‘kick the air with joy at being them’ and make ‘slipstreams of their ties’ – is the animated racket before the oncoming, terrible silence presaged by the final quatrain. 

The counterpoint is unbearable – the poet cannot bear it. Willing the clock to stop just before Pantglas school is engulfed on the morning of 21st October, 1966, words fail Edwards’ narrator, almost as if, to shamelessly paraphrase Adorno, poetry was no longer possible in this moment of existential crisis: 
 

‘They settle in their chairs. The world breathes in.

And now pause there. And now, oh now, pause there.’ (‘Aberfan’)

It seems unlikely that a poet of such exuberant joie de vivre, and co-mingled sadness, will ever stagnate. If the trajectory of Gen is horizontal rather than vertical; if there is no appreciable qualitative or stylistic difference between this masterful collection and My Family, it is cause for celebration, for Gen is a triumph. 

Review by Poetry Book Society

Thursday, November 29, 2018

At the core of this collection is a musing upon the relationships between different generations. Starting from observations upon his own youth, Edwards reaches back into the lives of his parents and his grandparents from 2005 to ’65 to 1905. He conjures an episode in the eighteenth-century life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge then fast forwards two hundred years to Richard Burton’s dressing room. This is an intriguing collection, keenly focused upon the nature of people and their lives.

Review by Zoë Wells

Thursday, November 22, 2018

It’s hard to find a funny poet – it seems that the vast majority of us are doomed to sit around bemoaning the sad state of the world as it is/was/always will be. It’s even harder to find someone who can be funny without being either superficial or depressing. But somehow, despite the many ways the world has changed for the worse in the four years since My Family and Other Superheroes, Jonathan Edwards has done it: he’s got me laughing again.

It was always going to be tough following up on the success of the Costa Award winning My Family and Other Superheroes. Second Novel Syndrome is up there as one of the most common excuses for writers spending so much time scrolling through Twitter instead of, say, writing – second only to the ever present ‘writer’s block’. Turns out there’s a simple solution to both: as Edwards puts it in his opening poem, ‘get up off your arse boy and begin’ (“Sing Song Spring Song”). And with that we do – begin, that is.

The first part of Gen focuses on family. While family stories were evidently a key portion of My Family, these fresh offerings go further. Family members are presented in their youth: a grandfather as a teenager, mother and father as children stealing sweets. As he posits in the eponymous “Gen”, each of us is or has been one of those ‘youths’: ‘they’re me, they’re you, but slightly cooler”.  Sometimes they are the centre of their own stories; sometimes they’re on the edges of greater, historical moments and figures – Houdini, Kurt Cobain, the Olympics. They’re the people in the corners in photographs, looking in at history as it’s being made, knowing that ‘one day this moment, now, will be in retro’ (“Olympic 100m, Final, Seoul”). Edwards is holding up a photo-album, a home video, and pointing for us, telling us to look here, look there, see how the young have always been there. We’ve all been young, even if some of us haven’t been old yet.

Gen goes on to focus on these kinds of bystanders in the second part, though more broadly – first outside the family, then outside humanity. The anthropomorphic poems in this second part, alongside the physical structures and cities of the third part, are where Edwards’s mastery really shines through. Anthropomorphism is too often used by poets as fables, taking issues of morality head on. In Gen, animals are humanised by drawing comparisons between their lives and those of modern humans. References to marketing and USPs, boredom and jests play off of earlier references to the chrysalis and to the runts of litters. Humans and animals are tied together by the way they reflect back modern life, the way that both are presented as bystanders in the wings: ‘it’s then that I see what all this is about / the you beneath the surface, trapped inside, / the me that’s in you, trying to get out’ (“Giraffe). Anthropomorphism could come across as lazy, but Edwards writes for a modern audience, revitalising the form and breathing fresh thoughts into the practice of poetry.

While the third section is rooted in the places and common people in Wales, the fourth and final section takes a step out. No more little stories of specific instances, specific people. These last poems are broad, vaguer, with characters we’re familiar with: a girl in a coffee shop, a couple snogging against a pub, the start and stop of a new love. These are sweeter poems. Edwards’s trademark humour continues to shine through, but the background voice that’s been present throughout, the one telling us to look here and there, becomes louder. It takes the time now to tell lessons, though is willing to admit when it doesn’t know the answer. The poem “When I’m Gone” stands out particularly here. It tells a loved one not to pine when you’re gone, not to waste time over someone who’s not here anymore, but ultimately lands on a killer line that asks whether this lesson even needs to be taught. It echoes through your mind long after you’ve closed the book, more so than any of the many other stellar poems in the collection, and it’s notable that this poem is potentially the saddest. This kind of landing is only possible in the context of the wider collection: the jests are done, the jokes have been used up. Life is made of ups and downs – it stands to reason that a collection that covers lives, generations, should be too.

Individually, the poems of Gen are what we’ve come to expect from Jonathan Edwards: funny, smart, warm. A little taste of home, even for those of us who didn’t grow up in Wales, and a splash of nostalgia thrown in for good measure. But as a collection, Gen is stunning: it scopes out the hilarity of our small world and comforts us through the tragedies of it. It’s the human story told not as an epic tale but as a tale told from father to child, passing through the minds and pens of generations. It’s a comfort; a hug; a cwtch, even.

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