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’: