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The Glass Aisle

Paul Henry
Publication Date: 
Wednesday, February 28, 2018
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‘... Paul Henry has much of his compatriot R.S. Thomas’s gift, in that poet’s later work, for terse, coolly forthright insightfulness ...’ The TLS

‘Here is a rich and comforting voice next to you in the dark. Twenty eight poems so beguiling you know not whether they depict ancient folklore or an everyday occurrence in the next but one village’
– Caught by the River


‘This is a poet still at the height of his powers, ten books in. Let the music play on.’
– Wales Arts Review


The Glass Aisle moves between rage and stillness, past and present, music and silence. Acclaimed poet Paul Henry’s tenth book includes a moving elegy to displaced workhouse residents, set on a stretch of canal in the Brecon Beacons National Park.

In the book’s title poem, a telephone engineer repairs a line that crosses the canal to the site of an old workhouse. Tormented by the voices of former “inmates”, he unwittingly connects the centuries, setting free the Victorian ghosts of poacher John Moonlight, lone parent Mary Thomas, and a host of others who haunt the poem’s present-day walker.

The collection is in three parts. In the first section, a thematic poem, ‘The Hesitant Song’, “orchestrates silence” while playing “the sea’s soft pedal” to convey the loss of a mother’s songs. Familiar “visitors” from earlier books: Brown Helen, Catrin Sands et al, haunt poems where the sea and music hold a nineteen-sixties childhood in its place. The book’s closing cadence combines love poems with some raw elegies.

A performance version of  The Glass Aisle, featuring songs co-written with fellow musician and songwriter Brian Briggs, (‘Stornoway’), is currently touring festivals.




Review by Dominik Szczepaniak, DURA

Friday, October 18, 2019

The Glass Aisle enfolds the reader with intricacies and figures of sound, exploring noise, rhythm and also silence within its pages. Addressing time, loss and childhood memories  ─  told through the stories of ordinary people  ─ the collection’s musicality and its preoccupation with voices make for its signature sonic tapestry.

This is the tenth book of poetry from Paul Henry, a singer-songwriter. There is a performance version of The Glass Aisle, in collaboration with Brian Briggs, which has been touring at the time of publication.

Nostalgia in this collection is obvious from the very first page where Henry writes about clouds full of his mother’s songs moving east (‘Cliff Terrace Clouds’). The nostalgia soon becomes the collection’s underlying theme, not due to its prevalence, but the subtlety of Henry’s language, making the mood feel natural, not forced:

As if she might still save
the trees from themselves
on the towpath, my wife
is pinning back the leaves.

And for every leaf returned
another falls to the ground,
to the colours of heartbreak,
of clothes she used to make.

(‘The Seamstress’)

Yet Henry’s silences, which succeed sounds in the poems, are often more meaningful, yielding metaphors that stay with the reader for a long time. Perhaps the most striking example can be found in ‘Chainsaws in the Mist’:

Another man’s scream
tries to cut a way out.


Across the white silence
our chainsaws scream.

In this poem about grief, loss and helplessness, Henry uses sound and lack thereof to build a place where emotions are contained within the walls of silence or unbearable noise. In The Glass Aisle, these two have a lot in common, so distinguishing them requires attention to every moment:

                               the bow
half-touching the string

a beat before the singer sings.
(‘The Hesitant Song’)

The collection is split into three parts, with the second one almost entirely dominated by ‘The Glass Aisle’, the centrepiece of the collection. Across eleven pages, Henry tells a story of shifting seasons, melting generations, people who used to live in a workhouse by the canal. There are John Moonlight, a Victorian poacher, and Mary Thomas, abused as punishment for her son crying in the chapel, her pain depicted in two short, striking lines:

The canal is inside me now.
Its arches rig my spine.

Countless other names give the poem its rhythm, the staccato of generations coming and going. The ghosts of these voices are heard by an engineer working on a telegraph pole by the canal, the pole then becoming his prison:

He has been up there for a year,
too high to engage in small talk
as he strains to hear lost voices […]

The titular glass aisle is canal in the winter, the frozen water breaking with the weight of John Moonlight when he walked over it, causing his death.

The water came up to his heart…


And in his eyes… not terror
but disbelief that it could give
beneath him, as they cheered […]

‘The Glass Aisle’ is a remarkable poem, the characters recurring in novel settings, time and status as only an illusion. Henry is a master of reusing lines, characters, building upon previous iterations. For example, this powerful line that appears in the middle of the poem returns slightly changed at its end, still containing all of its suggestion of freedom and majestic beauty:

Each nib’s calligraphy
scratches on stone, on glass, in air

I was never so free.

Henry’s latest collection is worth reading for the titular poem alone, but The Glass Aisle  as a whole is remarkable. Each poem and each reading feels like a homecoming albeit using a different door.

Review by C M Buckland, New Welsh Review

Friday, February 1, 2019


In this semi-surreal journey through the present and past, Henry’s narrator walks us through the seasons and along a section of canal in Powys, shedding a momentary light on some former inhabitants of an old workhouse.

The poem opens in the modern day with an engineer working up a telegraph pole, fixing a line that runs across the canal to the workhouse. As he toils, the engineer hears the faint sound of voices: ‘Abraham Bishop, Pauper, Gloucester / Charlot [sic] Phillips, Wife, Camarthen.’ This crackling transmission of the names, occupations and abodes of the inmates is a motif that runs through the piece, acting as a kind of sombre background static. 

As the poem progresses, we encounter other workhouse labourers such as Mary Thomas, abused by a member of staff as a punishment for her child having cried in chapel. There is also John Moonlight, an angler from Crickhowell, who we feel is more poacher than legitimate fisher, ‘Children camp in the field / where you hid your night lines.’ When the canal freezes over in winter, it becomes the glass aisle of the poem’s title. John Moonlight walks along it, eventually falling through the ice into the freezing water below.

For me, the power of this poem is in what is not said. From their apparitions and utterances, we get a sense of the traces that these souls have left behind, with the physical and emotional strains of their lives being inferred rather than made explicit.

A government document dated 1852 held at the British Library lists the kinds of hard labour the workhouse poor had to undertake. Amongst these were ‘breaking stones’ and ‘picking oakum’; the latter involved unravelling rope that had been treated with tar (often used in shipbuilding). Henry references these two tasks in his poem. The workhouse really was the last resort for many who, through illness, disability, unemployment or homelessness, could no longer support themselves. This poem makes us consider these people, who in sheer desperation referred themselves to such institutions and, in so doing, surrendered much of their self-worth and dignity.

The poem closes with the narrator standing on the canal towpath, contemplating the whole bandwidth of other worldly communications he has encountered, ‘I cannot tell an owl from a name on the wind, / the voices in the wire / from the voices in the leaves.’ 

This is a memorable work which, for me at least, has something of the darker moments of Dylan Thomas’ ‘Under Milkwood’ about it. In the spaces between the poem’s ghostly broadcasts, I think Paul Henry succeeds in confronting us with the grim reality that faced the Victorian destitute and gives these inmates the chance to breathe again. 

But whilst the title poem is the centrepiece of this collection, it is flanked by a number of other interesting poems:

‘Craiglais’ asks whether a tunnel connecting two coves might just be a wormhole bringing two separate worlds together; one at low tide, the other at high tide. I like the sense of space-time evoked in this poem, that this bridge between two dimensions could well disappear in an instant, leaving a traveller stranded on one side or the other.

In ‘The Seamstress’, the narrator’s wife is trying to hold back autumn by fixing the leaves back onto the trees. It is as though the oak and the aspen do not understand the force of their actions. Here thorns are pins, leaves are fabric, and the endeavour, an echo of the garments the seamstress used to fashion. ‘And for every hour returned / another falls to the ground, / to the colours of heartbreak, / of the clothes she used to make.’

I was transported back, in ‘Shelves’, to Henry’s previous collection, Boy Running (Seren, 2015). The sentiments of this poem feel deeply personal; as though they are a real, lived experience. It speaks about packing up old books – from either side of the fireplace – into plastic bags. ‘Bookmarks: letters, photographs / of the boys… slip free / like split playing cards, like knives.’ The more I re-read ‘Shelves’, the more I felt this piece belonged to the opening poems of Boy Running: with ‘Usk’ and ‘Moving In’ and ‘Studio Flat’ and ‘Ring' – incredibly raw works that speak of marital breakdown. But it was, nevertheless, good to revisit these emotions in this poem and in this collection.

The Glass Aisle is a body of work that walks us through different ages and locations, as well as through lives lived and lost. The title poem is a poignant reflection on the past and the severe hand dealt to those deemed least in society. ‘The Glass Aisle’ has that potential to endure.

Review by Neil Leadbeater, WriteOutLoud

Friday, May 11, 2018

Born in Aberystwyth, singer-songwriter and poet Paul Henry has had nine previous books of poetry published and is an established voice on the Welsh poetry circuit.

In keeping with his earlier work, music and the sea are ever present in this latest collection, as are an assembled cast of characters who move effortlessly in and out of his poems like free spirits. Without going into much detail as to their identities, he leaves his readers to fill in the gaps. So, who are Catrin Sands, Geta, brown Helen, Prydwen Jane and Mary? The relationships are never clearly defined. Some readers may find this a source of irritation while others may savour the mystery - for there is much that is mysterious about this book.

The collection of 28 poems is divided into three parts. The second part is almost exclusively given over to the title poem in which a telephone engineer repairs a line that crosses a stretch of canal above Crickhowell in the Brecon Beacons to the site of an old workhouse. Hearing the voices of former inmates, he reconnects the centuries that have gone between them, releasing the Victorian ghosts of the past. It is an intriguing piece that moves back and forth between the disembodied voices and striking descriptions of the canal and its natural surroundings. The title poem evolved from an Arts Council of Wales Creative Wales Award, with material sourced from a pamphlet called ‘The Spike’ by the Rev Margaret Williams and an 1840s census in which the poem’s names appear. The cover painting ‘View from a Canal Bridge’ by Simon Palmer provides the perfect backdrop to the poem.

Henry often approaches his subject matter from an oblique angle. In ‘Last of the Sixties Mothers’, a tender remembrance of his own mother, we are given no physical description or list of attributes. Instead, Henry chooses to define her in terms of the things that she once possessed:


     a dish-rack of forty-fives,

     melamine picnic plates,


     starburst clocks, half-alive,

     shrivelled inflatable chairs …


In Henry’s world, all is not as it seems. Why, for instance, in the title poem, is the engineer up in the tree for a whole year? What is a bridge that likes butter? Why do we learn more about the deceased inmates than we do about the engineer? The only thing we are told about him is that he has a red beard. In ‘St Michael’s’ why do all the seasons change in one day? In ‘The Father in the Well’ who put him there and why?


     Can you hear him, boys?

     Who put him in?

     There are mice and bats

     inside the wall’s ring.


     Some nights he cannot bear

     to hear your laughter spill

     from the moonlit porthole


     into his tower in the ground.


Descriptions of the natural world and the forces that shape it are beautifully expressed. In ‘Brown Helen Reclining’ Henry writes of  “the wind’s stammer / snagged on a gate” and in the title poem where “clouds clear, stars spill / cows amble over the moon” he verges on the surreal.

The dominant mood of this collection is undoubtedly elegiac. The poems that address childhood are nostalgic but not sentimental; those addressed to Catrin Sands and others speak of a loss that is at times still quite raw though lightly touched upon.

‘Nettle Race’ with its sense of abandonment to the ravages of nature; the evocation of time spent in a favourite bookshop (‘Lockyer’s); and the final poem ‘Not Stopping’ in which a figure stands on a station platform hoping his daughter will return the wave that he gives to her as her train speeds through, are magical examples of so much that is to be admired in this collection. Recommended.

Review by Sophie Baggott, Wales Arts Review

Friday, March 2, 2018

It was only halfway through The Glass Aisle that its melodic lilt jolted my memory to recall that I once spent a halcyon half-hour relaxing to the tune of its author, Paul Henry, playing guitar in Ty Newydd’s sunlit library. I was 13, and he was our school group’s poetry tutor for the week. I wonder whether my 13-year-old self would be surprised that, more than a decade on, I’m relaxing on a bright Sunday morning in the company of the poet’s lyrics (on paper, this time) once more.

This is Paul Henry’s tenth book. Divided into three parts, the titular poem consumes much of the second section – an elegy to displaced workhouse residents observed in the Brecon Beacons, which threads through centuries of Welsh history. Ghosts of yesteryears haunt 21st-century passersby, and in fact a performance version of the poem is bringing these ghosts to life on a tour with Stornoway’s Brian Briggs to coincide with the book’s publication.

But let’s start at the very beginning. Music is omnipresent across the collection, as is the rhythmic sea for the earliest section. This first chapter is named ‘The Hesitant Song’, after one of the poems that features. In the opening poem, ‘Cliff Terrace Clouds’, clouds cross the Sugarloaf “full of my mother’s songs.” Mothers lead the way into the second, sentimental poem, too (‘Last of the Sixties Mothers’): “the jetsam of her decade | beached on suburban drives”. Born in 1959, this was the decade of Henry’s childhood.

Then, a mother’s song is more overtly in danger of loss. The poem from which the first chapter takes its name, ‘The Hesitant Song’, refers to a mother’s songs flickering in brightness – as if in danger of extinguishing altogether. Many lines form a quasi-refrain, altering only slightly each time: “Inside the sun’s amber arcade, | a beat before the singer sings | the sea’s soft pedal…”. The amber arcade and soft pedal reappear again and again. Yet, there is an overwhelming sense of demise: “To orchestrate silence”, Henry writes in one sobering line. A little later, more contradiction: “the sea’s absence | flooded the room each day.”

A great majority of Henry’s verses make reference to either the sea, or music, or both: “A fanfare of gulls … A crab makes a violin of itself” is a spectacular example of their merging in ‘The Sea in Pieces’. Henry is a skilful personifier of the elements; “the wind’s stammer | snagged on a gate” (‘Brown Helen Reclining’). As he has done in previous poems, Henry frequently directs his words to Catrin Sands, often also referring to Geta. His poem ‘Put on the Sun’ asks Catrin Sands to wear her yellow dress, and adds: “let’s walk behind our shadows | on the promenade of sighs.” The poetry feels melancholy; there’s often a sense of love misplaced: “I miss her too easily, the hook in her smile … And where she swims | in what she dreams | is further out to sea | than any line I cast.”

Loneliness creeps into several of the poems early on – and perhaps explains why the poet so often calls after Catrin and Geta. Others, too. Henry opens ‘The Fireplace’ with the line: “No one’s in except the sea.” His poetry has a habit of colloquially addressing people, without the need to explain their identity – often even just listing names italicised. Whether this serves to augment realism, or is simply irksome, is up to the reader.

Onto ‘The Glass Aisle’: Henry drew the names for his long, centre-stage elegy from an 1840s census, and the harrowing story of Mary Thomas came from a pamphlet from a certain Rev. Margaret Williams (according to the Acknowledgements). Mary’s narrated experience is acutely moving – and topical; she is a woman who is sexually abused, because her son cried in chapel. “He put one hand on my neck, | the other under my clothes. | When I told him No, he kicked me”, her ghost tells the observer. #MeToo, from beyond the grave. The elegy flickers back into Wales’ past: “Mary’s here, on a white horse | drenched in medieval leaflight.” There are other ‘ghosts’, but for me none so poignant as Mary’s tale. The closing effect is magical, surreal: “Clouds clear, stars spill, | cows amble over the moon.”

The third and final section remains nameless. I was wary, half-wondering whether Henry had somewhat run out of steam by this point. The poems themselves, though, are lovely – if not cogently forming a cohesive chapter. The close is composed largely of love poems and elegies, with a continuation of the melancholy that hangs over most of this book.

I felt that the ending of the poem ‘The Nettle Race’, “Slowly the sun leans | towards its finishing line”, would have been a perfect closure to the book. Henry does not give us this neatness, of course; instead we have a figure waiting at a train station, hoping his daughter would return the wave that he gives as her train speeds past. He ends the poem with the lines:


and that love
however distant along its track,
however brief its glance, can forgive,
wave back.


A heartrending point to close on, the poem is called ‘Not Stopping’. I hope – as I’m sure so do many – that there will be no stopping for Paul Henry. This is a poet still at the height of his powers, ten books in. Let the music play on.

Review by John Andrews, Caught by the River

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

How do you survive the thumb-splitting cold days of your winter? For those who fear they won’t make it to its end, Paul Henry’s latest volume of poetry The Glass Aisle is an essential companion. Here is a poet who sees the life beyond the last river; translator, interpreter, a miner in caverns of ghosts. His words, sparse and exacting, are there for the inevitable dawn when loss has done away with your soul, shredded both mind and senses and has come for your flesh and your bones. This is the book they will put into your ‘Wicker Gondola’ when it makes its last journey down to the sea. Within its pages the pain described so vividly by the author will be a salve to the reader, for here is a rich and comforting voice next to you in the dark. Twenty eight poems so beguiling you know not whether they depict ancient folklore or an everyday occurrence in the next but one village as in ‘The Father in the Well’:

Can you hear him, boys?
Who put him in? 
There are mice and bats 
inside the wall’s ring.

Some nights he cannot bear 
to hear your laughter spill 
from the moonlit porthole 
into his tower in the ground. 

He covers his furry ears 
and pretends he did not fall.

The Glass Aisle demands to be read in detail, every word, every space to be picked over forensically with care. But equally so raw are some of its poems that on occasion they beg only to be read once. This is a strong tonic; this is a bath of salt tears. This is the key to the music room that the author’s father ‘locked away’ in the ‘The Hesitant Song’, this is the tender glance of ‘The Last of the Sixties Mothers’,

She calls out our names 
in case we are still there 

our satchel bells in the wind,
our buckled sandal-chimes 

rising up the pavement 
on the afternoon tide. 

Hold fast, for the bath is not filled with your tears alone, you will be in the company of John Moonlight, angler, night-line setter, you will be in the company of the former workhouse inmates, ‘Abraham Bishop, Pauper, Gloucester Charlot Phillips, Wife, Carmarthen Easau Daly, Tailor, Ireland…’ their epitaphs all around you,

a story from a prayer, 
an owl from a name on the wind.

Ultimately, your guide will be the angel lineman of Brigend County, a confidante of the forgotten,

his red beard longer, 
his eyes on fire, 
his skull a full cemetery-

Increasingly the pages read as if they are of an ancient illuminated manuscript of chronicles rather than a modern day volume of poetry. Time spent with Henry doesn’t pass as much as slip. Here is a hell mural of a country’s population sent to the workhouse, here is the seamstress whose fingers bleed, here is the miner whose lamp has gone out, here is the pauper whose hand is bone, here you will walk through a valley of servants who dare not speak of their past, there you will pass a village of idiots, along a road of vagrancy,

the water came up to his heart…
The cold. He cradled his head…
The star still burned in his pipe…

There is fleeting escape, in the son who left and brought back hope, the hawker who fled over the sea, a door opened in love in London’s ‘Grove Park’, and ultimately there is beauty like the first bolt of spring sun splitting the sky. Hold on to that beauty for this is a work that will get you through your winter. Do as Henry tells ‘Brown Helen’ in ‘The Fireplace’,

I’ll draw these flames to heel
Your chair is too far away.

The bay is rising now.
Warm your hands on its light.

Tell me you can feel 
all our summers in this grate.


Paul Henry reads poems from The Glass Aisle, accompanied by music from Stornoway’s Brian Briggs, at our April Social Club. More details here.

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