Known for her distinctive style that owes something to Emily Dickinson’s brevity (and her use of the dash to denote a long pause) Carlin is a surprising and unusual voice in modern poetry.
This fourth collection features four distinct sections: the first part includes a series of poems dedicated to two grandchildren, born in Poland, and we see them from the age of the first few months until 5 or 6 years. There are also three poems to the poet’s own grown-up autistic son, Joseph.These are poignant meditations on incipient lives, and recognise the joys and the perils of childhood and how history, of both family and country, can shape destiny.
The second part opens with a small batch of poems specifically about music and art. Then, in contrast to the first section, is a series, Plaques and Tangles, that feature unsentimental but still deeply felt portraits of elderly people with dementia who live in a nursing home. Their characters can only be guessed at from the scant but telling evidence of their fading memories and from the minor contact that we have with their relatives. Their fear and distress is recognised, along with their palpable courage and tenacity.
The third section is named after the poet’s father and includes some moving poems that recall incidents in South Africa, childhood memories that resonate. The landscape and people of Africa have a strong pull for this poet and she has said that she feels “increasingly drawn back there.” There are also some vivid pieces about wartime Poland, the Third Reich and the Holocaust.
The fourth section is a long sonnet sequence inspired by the lives of religious solitaries – a tradition which began with the Desert Fathers (and Mothers) in the 4th century and continues today. The intense drama of the inner life, the struggle for spiritual truth and integrity, and ultimately, the tensions between good and evil are conveyed with a questioning intensity.
Vuyelwa Carlin was born in South Africa in 1949, brought up in Uganda, and has lived for many years now in Shropshire. Her poems have appeared in literary journals and anthologies in the UK and abroad. She has published three poetry collections to date and has won prizes in both the Cardiff and National Poetry Competitions. She is also A Hawthornden Fellow. For the past five years she has worked as a carer in an EMI (Elderly Mentally Infirm) unit.
Listen to Vuyelwa Carlin read her poem, ‘Ellen’:
Review from The Warwick Review
It can be "luck" to win a prize as hyped as the T.S. Eliot Prize...Vuyelwa Carlin has an... impressive voice and ... inspiring collection, The Solitary, makes one wonder why she was not also a contender for the Prize.
Carlin bases her more specific poetry in England, in Cape Town, Poland and Germany. Yet her named and unnamed individuals - with their illnesses, sufferings, traumas, deaths and spiritual quests...Carlin also links the old with the new. She refers to "the ancient sea: / ur-swimmers, beaten out beneath thought"; to "wind-centuries", to Gawain, to "Ur-wings, and to "Pan's terrible shout" in the fearful "forest" of Gwen's dementia-riddled mind.
Calin's imagery is ... taut and striking... Carlin takes... risks... with the personal, and with the unsayable. In her androgynous work, her characters - her grandchildren, her autistic son, the "tangle of named women with dementia who live in a "placeless past". Carlin's final sonnet sequence seems distilled, compressed and powerfully controlled as Hopkins' final 'Dark Sonnets'... deserve(s) to be read and re-read for...brave, musical, incisive and highly-crafted analyses of our time, and for their pushing of poetry to a place where it can reveal new meanings at every perusal, communicating even before it is understood.
Patricia McCarthy The Warwick Review, Vol IV, March 2010
Review from Eyewear Blog
..a collection whose reach and breadth with a series of poems, yet to hang together elegantly. Tackling the Holocaust in poetry is almost certain hubris, yet Carlin's poise and skill as a poet demand that she be given a chance. It pays off: Carlin's control over her ability not just to portray tragedy but to create a sense of it lyrically produces rich rewards, not least some of the most brutal, yet somehow peaceful poetry you are likely to come across. In this collection, life and death are cyclical and equalising, and god had little more power over it all than the rest of us. This is a serious book, for serious readers, but it is startling, and unquestionably masterful. Charlotte Newman, Eyewear Blog 21/08/2010