Poems from Pembrokeshire

Ed. Amy Wack
Publication Date: 
Wednesday, March 6, 2019
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Poems from Pembrokeshire is part of Seren’s pamphlet series celebrating the spirit of place. An area of supreme but also disquieting beauty, Pembrokeshire has been the home to saints and pirates, the cradle of Tudor Kings and subject to oil spills and annual invasions of summer visitors. The undeniable loveliness of its off-shore islands: Ramsey, Grassholm, and Caldey, contrasts with the often harsh life of settlers, of monks and sea-fishing folk of the past, such as the stoic ‘Boatmen’ of Tenby.

Enjoy this poetry pamphlet yourself or send to a loved one – comes with an envelope & postcard.


Tony Curtis
Waldo Williams
Alison Bielski
Gillian Clarke
A.C. Bevan
Peter Finch
R.S. Thomas
Menna Elfyn
Hilary Llewellyn-Williams
Ben Ray
Gwyneth Lewis
Rowan Williams
Philip Gross
Maggie Harris
Duncan Bush
David Foster-Morgan
David Hodges
Matthew Francis
George Sandifer-Smith
David Emrys James
Tiffany Atkinson
Emily Hinshelwood
Wendy French
Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch





Review by Neil Leadbeater, The Poet Magazine

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Poems from Pembrokeshire forms a part of Seren’s attractively produced pamphlet series celebrating the spirit of places in Wales. The other pamphlets in the series are titled Poems from Cardiff; Poems from Snowdonia and Poems from the Borders. The poems in all four pamphlets are selected by Amy Wack, who was born in Florida and educated at San Diego and Columbia universities. A former graduate of the MFA Writing Program at Columbia University in New York City, she now lives in Cardiff and has been Poetry Editor at Seren since 1992, where she has edited a number of poetry collections, including Oxygen and Burning the Bracken.

Steeped in mythology and history, this anthology of poems celebrates, among other things, the natural beauty of Pembrokeshire’s offshore islands and coastal areas. Inspiration is drawn from The Mabinogion, historical sites and saint’s legends. 

In 'Caldey Island', David Hodges places emphasis on the remoteness of the place. Even though it is only 0.6 miles off the coast near Tenby, its accessibility by boat is at the mercy of the tides.

Battered by wind
and battered by sea,
only a fool would visit,
or make plans,
on an island
where the boats
are all ‘Weather Permitting’

With a recorded history going back over 1,500 years, it is one of the holy islands of Britain, ‘fit only for monks / and for prayer’ observed by the Cistercian monks of Caldey Abbey, who are the owners of the island.

In another island poem, Gwyneth Lewis turns her attention to voles. The Skomer vole is a unique subspecies of bank vole endemic to Skomer. Estimates suggest that there are about 20,000 of them on the island which is why it will come as no surprise to learn that Lewis titles her poem 'The Voledom of Skomer'. Just as Skomer is renowned for its voles, so Grassholm is known for its flock of breeding gannets. Lying west of Skomer, in the community of Marloes and St. Brides, it is one of the westernmost points in Wales. Tiffany Atkinson’s 'Grassholm' gives us Sistines of seabirds in a poem that borders on the mythological and fantastical. Duncan Bush chooses Ramsay Island for his subject matter:

The island’s a bird sanctuary now.
Like the leaning wind, it has
becoming finally what it always was.

I like the way a whole line has been taken up with the word ‘prevailed’. It makes us pause to consider its close associations with power and persuasion and to recall that, in meteorological terms, we often talk of a prevailing wind.

Closer to shore, Amy Wack paints a poetic portrait of the 'talismanic' Goscar Rock in her poem of the same name. 'This giant rock' is a' beast of slabs and fissures' which sits in Tenby Bay. Her poem takes us back to the time of the Vikings and then even further to the last ice age when it was swept from the shoreline and set adrift ‘in the churning ice-floes of the channel’. 

Along the shoreline itself, 'Prints' by Philip Gross draws inspiration from the Môr Plastig project, a photographic study of plastic objects washed up along the Welsh coastline, while Emily Hinshelwood, in 'Pwllcrochan', a place on the shores of Milford Haven, hints at another kind of environmental pollution where ‘A tanker is docking three hundred thousand tons of oil, / ribbed waves rock to the shore. Chimneys are belching, / a low hum under the pylon. The air smells of engine.’

Elsewhere, A. C. Bevan’s curiously titled 'Effects of Weathering On In Situ Dolerite And Rhyolite Outcrops From The Preseli Mountains, South Wale's takes its inspiration from an X-Ray Spectrometry Report dating from December 2005 and Peter Finch’s 'Things In The Western Sky' will most likely appeal to members of The Cloud Appreciation Society. Orchidists will find much to admire in Gillian Clarke’s poem 'Wild Orchids', which describes their scent, shape, mythology and colour in language that is compact and clear:

Hot stink of orchid in the woods at forest.
Downstream of the waterfall I breathed
their scent and touched their purple towers,
the swollen root that cures the King’s Evil
and makes the heart hot. Not flowers to share
to bring home for a jar.
Ophelia’s long purples, tragic flowers.
You could believe they grew beneath the cross
and no amount of rain could wash the blood
from their stained leaves.

Ben Ray’s poem 'The Landsker Line' draws upon a term used to describe the distinct linguistic and cultural boundary that lies between the Welsh speaking areas of northern Pembrokeshire and the English speaking areas of southern Pembrokeshire, an area known as ‘Little England Beyond Wales’. Its Yeatsian opening reminds us to proceed with caution in places where language is strongly related to identity and culture:

Tread softly. The Landsker Line runs through this place,
cutting you straight down the tongue
plucking vocal chords to different rhythms.
This is war on a geographical scale.

The 6th-century Welsh saint, St. Brynach, who is traditionally associated with Pembrokeshire where several churches are dedicated to him, is the subject of Hilary Llewellyn-Williams’ poem 'What Brynach Saw'. He was ‘One of those early saints, the tough / weathered sort with big hands / and knotty calf muscles; the wild-eyed / sort gazing into a grey gale…’ Tradition portrays him as something of a wild fellow in his youth but very virtuous after his conversion. A churchyard belonging to one of the churches dedicated to St. Brynach is the setting of a poem by Rowan Williams titled 'Nevern Churchyard, The Bleeding Yew'. This churchyard is renowned for its yew trees which line the access path to the front of the Church. The trees are believed to be some 700 years old and one of these is known as the Bleeding Yew because it has been oozing a blood-red sap (with a consistency similar to blood) for as long as anyone can remember. Williams describes it as a ‘port-red ooze, crusted / like scale in kettles’.

George Sandifer-Smith’s poem, 'The Wreck of the Empress', documents the fateful oil spill that occurred at the entrance to the Milford Haven Waterway on 15 February, 1966, from the Sea Empress that was en route to the Texaco oil refinery near Pembroke and its devastating effect on the environment. The inventive use of the forward slash (/) mimics the sideways listing of the ship to great effect:

Skinned my feet and shins/
at St. Ann’s Head
where I fell sideways/20:07.

Cargo/ national lifeblood
ran from my wounds, starboard…

From Waldo Williams’ famous poem 'In Two Fields', to new poems from Philip Gross, Wendy French and Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch, this anthology serves as an excellent introduction to writing centred in and around Pembrokeshire.

Review by Rachel Carney, Created to Read

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

This review was first published online by the Created to Read blog and can be read here

​These four slim poetry anthologies are beautifully produced, each containing a selection of poems centred around a specific area of Wales, collated by Seren’s editor, Amy Wack. Many poems are taken from recent collections, but there are also several new poems, and each pamphlet has a distinct feel to it. To begin with, in Poems from Pembrokeshire there is a sense of time standing still in a landscape rooted to the past.

We meet the ancient Brynach, ‘a lad with a dusk thirst / no cask of ale could kill’ in a poem by Hilary Llewellyn-Williams, and a ‘Boatman’ who ‘comes / Cockle treading in salt-faded shoes’ in a poem by Alison Bielski. We tread along the invisible ‘Landsker Line’ where ‘time clots and cloys in the breaths between sentences’ in Ben Ray’s poem, and we encounter ‘The Bleeding Yew’ in Nevern Churchyard, in a poem by Rowan Williams.

I love the wry humour of R.S. Thomas’s poem ‘A Line from St David’s’, a place which I am still yet to visit:

Somewhere a man sharpens a scythe:
A child watches him from the brink
Of his own speech, and this is of more
Importance than all the visitors keeping
A spry saint asleep in his tomb.

Philip Gross’s poem examines footprints, both ancient and modern, while we are treated to a new Mabinogi inspired poem from Matthew Francis, and Amy Wack’s ‘Goscar Rock’ takes us back to the Vikings, and even further:

You have to go back to the last ice age
to find the glacier enamoured enough

to sweep a hill off its feet, set it adrift
in the churning ice floes of the channel

In Poems from Snowdonia there is a sense of expanse, of height, and emptiness, as we hear the ‘swee a swee’ and ‘creea cree’ of the Greenfinch, in a poem by Carol Rumens, look up with Rhian Edwards at a ‘circus of Kites’ in an ‘air tattoo of turns’, and climb with Peter Finch up the ‘crowded slog’ of the Watkin Path, to lie down at the top and see ‘sky still there / dry blue and most of it still up’.

Katherine Stansfield captures the experience of a newcomer to this area in her poem ‘Iaith / Llaeth’:

After araf, which is slow, on the long mountain roads
that wound to the sea, pulling me to the town,
the first word I learned to see was iaith,
which is language, because it was the world

And I love Richard Poole’s poem about sheep in Blaenau Ffestiniog who ‘stroll along the street. / When passing passers-by / they meet them squarely eye to eye, / don’t blink or deviate’.

Poems from the Borders is full of water. I particularly enjoyed reading Philip Gross’s poem ‘Severn Song’ a beautiful, repetitive, musical description of that place:

The Severn was water, the water was mud
whose eddies stood and did not fill,
The kind of water that’s thicker than blood.
The river was flowing, the river was still.

Catherine Fisher traces the route of the Severn ‘past lost / lanes, cow-trodden banks, nudging the reeds’, and John Powell Ward conjures up an image of the River Wye as a ‘tonnage of sedately moving / Water. Sleepily it stirs…’.

‘Borderland’ by Christopher Meredith is a clever villanelle which grapples with the Welsh notion of ‘ffin’, part of the word ‘diffiniad’, meaning definition, and also part of the place-name Capel y Ffin:

You’ll find a ffin inside each definition.
We see what is when we see what it’s not:
edges are where meanings happen.

This linguistic theme is picked up again in Paul Groves’ poem ‘At Partrishow in the Black Mountains’, where ‘The sun rises over England, and sets over Wales’, a place where ‘the English tongue has licked or lashed / the Welsh identity’, yet ‘Quietude’ remains.

Poems from Cardiff begins, as it should, with the people who ‘crossed an ocean to help make this city’ in a poem by Gillian Clarke. This selection is full of humour and more mixed than the others, reflecting some of the diversity of the city itself, though, as a Cardiff resident myself, I can see plenty of aspects to this small capital which are not represented, and hope that it will inspire local writers to produce more.

There are poems which evoke the Cardiff suburbs of Grangetown and Roath. Abeer Ameer’s ‘Roathed’ portrays this quirky part of the city perfectly. She begins, ‘I’ve been ‘Roathed’, and goes on, referring to the popular vegetarian café, Milgi:

I’ve been veggied
in a yurt out back
strolled round the lake
sat on eulogy benches
swanned off with the swans

And Hanan Issa captures some of the diversity of Grangetown in her poem,

Kids in white hijabs and hats, late for Quran school,
dodge an elder from the Hindu temple holding a bag of fruit.

And her closing lines evoke the sense of home,

There’s something about Grangetown.
It’s the muck and the music: I love it.

I really enjoyed reading the villanelle ‘Panetyric for Cardiff Mods’ by Patrick Lodge, which seems to encapsulate the music scene in ‘60s Cardiff, and ‘Toast’ by Sheenagh Pugh gives the best description I’ve ever read of the Millennium Centre, as a ‘vast concrete-and-glass mother-ship // that seems to have landed awkwardly / in our midst’.

I should also mention ‘Lunar Distance’ by clare e. potter, a beautiful yet stark elegy for Whitchurch Hospital, which closed its doors in 2016, and ‘Girl on the Stairs’ by Stephen Payne, which captures a small, yet memorable moment, in one of Cardiff’s many university buildings.

These four poetry pamphlets give us just a small taste of Wales – its landscape, its people and its poetry.

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