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More for Helen of Troy

Simon Mundy
ISBN-13: 
9781854115782
Format: 
Paperback
Publication Date: 
Friday, November 9, 2012
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"This is a book I will take with me as my companion everywhere - up high mountains, on the bus, to bed. Beautiful." - Bettany Hughes

More for Helen of Troy is suffused with the atmosphere of the landscapes that inspire the poet:  Italy, the lush countryside of Powys, and a number of islands all over the world – Grenada, Jamaica, Shetland. It is also deeply involved with many questions of desire: for the ideal of a beautiful woman; for the hope of a good state; for the vision of a pristine country and seaside. The tension between these ideals, between lofty aims and inevitable disappointments, come together in the main title sequence, where an entire society must scheme and suffer for the allure of Helen. Sometimes keenly satirical, often poignantly lyrical, these poems are both pointed and enjoyable.

REVIEWS

Review by Lindsay Macgregor, DURA

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Simon Mundy’s fourth poetry collection, More for Helen of Troy, is, in many ways, a mixed bag.  It ranges from vignettes of Helen of Troy in the opening ten-poem sequence to poems of landscape, personal incident and ideas.  And it explores themes as varied as gender relations, war, ageing and ideals.  Mundy brings a deftness and lightness of touch to many of his poems, suffusing the collection with poignancy and a yearning for times past.  Yet, there is a disappointment about the collection too – not only Mundy’s palpable disappointment with “modern” life, but a certain disappointment, for this reader at least, in the variable quality of the poetry.

The Helen of Troy sequence sets up themes of beauty as casus belli, exploring also the tension between striving for ideals and dealing with the inevitable disappointment which follows.  In “Deceptive Beauty”, Mundy likens Helen to peonies –

            Her roots will be among the earliest
            To sense the death of frost,

There are some lovely sounds and images but the poem also has its jarring moments – often when Mundy is too telling and when his descriptions are not sufficiently accurate:

             In full June panoply she seems

             Gaspingly beautiful, her white cheeks

 Tinged with pink, her neck flecked

 With clever hints of colour,

 

Although the internal rhyme and assonance of these lines are pleasing, the image of Helen’s flecked neck makes me think more of kitchen linoleum than a gaspingly beautiful woman.  But then again, in “The Soldier’s Song”, the final line perfectly conveys, in just a few words, the soldier’s feelings:

            ..the years will leave her

            Warm when I am mud.

Similarly, in “Menelaus Reports”, desire is beautifully described as,

            ….the slow joy of visiting

A half-remembered clearing in the woods

And finding wild strawberries

Growing there, beneath a fallen oak

Just as they always did.

The Helen of Troy sequence is a foil for later poems in which the contemporary, man-made world is presented as a shabby, second-rate source of disappointment in comparison to the classical age of gods and goddesses, and high ideals.  In “Mermaid”, the mythical creature could,

            Shed the tail, rejoice in legs and bush,

Bask on the warm sands of love

Before the mortal tides creep in

Across the disappointing strand.

No. Keep amphibious. Immortal

Beauty is worth a little weeping.

A key motif throughout the collection is ageing and there is a note of envy of the young and of youthfulness. In “Four”, Mundy opens with the rueful observation, 

            I’ve lost the key, no

            It’s worse than that.

I’ve lost the lock.

 

The poems ends with the regret,

            All I have

Is a list of what has been,

The feeling of missing

Fun, sport, import, point

All four.

At several points, however, Mundy teeters on the brink of excess.  For example, in the tenth poem of Mundy’s sequence, “The Island”,

             Within mountains you can trace

 That ancient ejaculation

 On the knickers of the land.

 

Overall, there’s such variability in the quality of the collection that even within a single poem, there are successful and unsuccessful lines. In “Summergill”, a beautifully-observed poem of place, I found the phrase, “Major brook, non-commissioned river”, self-consciously and intrusively “clever”. Yet, the line above, “You are the perfect gill for summer” is a playful pun which works for me.

Review by Robin Thomas, Write Out Loud

Sunday, April 21, 2013

An ancient world looms large in Simon Mundy’s collection, usually as a point of comparison with a (mostly) inferior modern world.  In Radnor Songs II, “iron” in times past “meant victory”,  not the “slag and unemployment” of the present in which “fun, sport, import, point” are missing. In III of the sequence “warrior blood” has given way to weekend-only lovers. The Island sequence continues the theme:  a beach party (I) is a tawdry, noisy nuisance, the seaside town is “ragged” (III), full of “places of ill-repute” where instead of meaningful activity “we watch and play”; VIII notes how the eponymous island has been spoilt by “poison”.  The modern world is tawdry and directionless, given to “democracy”, lacking the order provided by gods, chieftains, kings and aristocrats connected to nature. A number of poems call for or expect the destruction of this unsatisfactory modern world.  In Island II nature fights back, boobies attacking “a whole cruise liner of Americans”, the sea sweeping a banana boat into a cathedral.  In Collusion, mountains “tip settlers … through the rapids”.  Island IX calls for “all bridges [to be blown]”.

 

Another key motif is physical age. Presteigne Festival laments that

 

“A generation’s beauty has furrowed and eroded,

Desire crumbled into bitter flakes”

 

and that “plans have progressed from paper / to ash…”

In The Island VII, age renders the speaker invisible, having become “forgotten geography”.  In Radnor Songs II, “All I have / Is a list of what has been”.

But the present day and indeed advanced age are not always seen in a wholly negative light.   Prayer for a God-daughter is a celebration of new life, as is Translated Daughter in which the arrival of the child serves to

 

“… transform

This sombre night

Into glorious dawn”

 

And there is an acknowledgement in The Island I that at least the rioters are “tidy” and “leave nothing broken”, an implied positive comparison with a violent past.

Also scattered through the collection are poems of personal incidents, memories of love and of places, observations of human behaviour and the like and their associated thoughts and feelings. 

Calling to mind the poetry of The Movement, Mundy’s poems are not generally experimental in form or text, but structured in a way that recalls the traditional.  Stanzas, similar line length and initial capital letters provide form, and suggest regular metre and rhythm.  The music is frequently attractive, as in Helen IV, where the lines “In full June panoply she seems / Gaspingly beautiful” enact a gasp of wonder.

This is generally a poetry of ideas.  For such poetry to be successful, those ideas have to be original and interesting.  In this respect, The Mermaid is perhaps not original enough. And the modern/ ancient world duality doesn’t always fully work for the same reason. 

There are additional reasons why these poems did not always resonate for me.  Intended or not, some of the criticisms of the modern world come out as envy of the young, and of youthful activities from which the poet is now excluded.  In The Island III, the poet notes the “contours of the bottoms of the ‘schoolgirls, nearlywomen girls”.  In VII the speaker’s invisibility is in respect of “the firm young wayfarers / Especially the cadet women”.  Young girls are also the focus of attention in The Island VI where the narrator “meander[s] to heaven” in the company of “two slaves, females not above fifteen”.

There is also a tendency to intervene in the poems, telling the reader what to think, always a danger in poetry of ideas.  “Whose was the cry of victory?” in An Incident of War is entirely rhetorical.   Island IV is an extreme example of the tendency to tell in its refrain of variations on “Can an age be right …”.

The poetry is most successful when it is less about thought, less about telling.  Translated Daughter is perhaps the best poem in the collection, summoning images from the work of conceptual artist Klara Pokrzywko to create a powerful emotional state.  The Helen sequence is varied in point of view, tone and form, and hangs together well round its central motif, leaving space for the reader to make connections.  The sequence Four Lyrics likewise leaves room for the reader to contribute his or her own response to the mix of external and personal worlds  which make up the subject matter of the poems.

Among other attractive poems are Radnor Songs I where the ancient landscape is seen through what the reader gradually comes to realise is the point of view of a buzzard;  The Island II, which enters surrealistic territory to good effect;  Afternoon Excuse, with its translation of irritation into poetry; and Gently of Course, a case where the thought is original.

So, a varied and interesting collection, with some issues that the poet might wish to address in his next one.

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