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Still

Christopher Meredith
ISBN-13: 
9781781726143
Publication Date: 
Thursday, April 8, 2021
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'beautiful, subtle, mysteriously evasive poems... a great achievement.' - Jeremy Hooker

 

Many though not all of the poems in Christopher Meredith’s collection, Still, explore the web of meanings in the word ‘still’. They meditate on the paradoxes of stillness and motion, on the capacity of memory and imagination to hold life apparently still and the struggle in art to achieve the power implicit in that to connect with the things of the world in a contemplative intensity.

The distillation of a recurring memory of an old man in the title poem becomes simultaneously an intensification of reality and a denaturing of it. Horseshoe crabs on a nesting beach in New England have reached their biological niche, at an evolutionary standstill for millions of years, but live in blind struggle. A Victorian engraver loses his mind attempting to fix his changing native Cornwall forever in his illustrations. In ‘Standing room’, in entering the still room, the stanza, of a poem, we enter a fixity in which we ourselves, as authors or readers, become transient onlookers. Breughel’s winter paintings invite us both to enter a timelessly frozen world  and to understand its liquidity which we both observe and are part of.

In the closing sequence, ‘Still air’, which grew from a collaboration with visual artist Sara Philpott and which focuses tightly on a small landscape in the Usk Valley, the multiple, complex, endlessly moving parts of nature in the stars, geology, the seasons, days, moments, are overlaid and integrated with a clarity of vision that may be achieved in moments of perhaps illusory but necessary stillness in a way that’s ultimately affirmative. Such moments of apparent stillness in these and others of the poems became apertures through which to apprehend the contrasted dynamisms of the world.

Still builds on Meredith’s previous collection, Air Histories, shifting between the personal and impersonal, developing a characteristically wide range of forms, techniques, settings and moods from quirky to serious, while increasingly an underlying coherence of vision emerges. Many of the poems feature Welsh landscapes and settings, in common with much of the author’s previous work.

 

“Lyrical, always surprising, Meredith 'fixes stillness' in absences here. His perfect ear tunes in so precisely – especially to the natural world, it's 'edge of sense' – we are left haunted á la Frost, by a deep lonliness in the human condition.” – Paul Henry

 

Still is published simultaneously with Meredith's new novel Please. Buy them both at the discounted price of £15.00 here

REVIEWS

Review by Steven Lovatt, The Friday Poem

Friday, July 9, 2021

Here are thirty-three intelligent and expertly-made poems, all of them worth reading, memorising – do people still do this? – and revisiting. The main subject is the experience of time, Meredith’s own and that of people generally, and abstraction is avoided by having the poems take off from and remain within the gravitational pull of material details: a teacup, eggs, the saccade of an eye. The weirdness of time is a rich theme, and Meredith peers at it from various standpoints. The parallax distortion of memory is acknowledged, and also its seeming arbitrariness – why should it be this detail, among billions, that lodges in the mind, there to grow ‘weighty with a fixity it never had’? Why, in the last two words of ‘Moving pictures’, are such images ‘moving/still’? Another poem notices that what we remember in a sense fixes us, too, as if the object or emotion takes a snapshot of the one who receives its impression. Thus you may receive an impossible vision of yourself, ‘forever in slow/motion sailing down the narrow stairs’ of a house sixty years ago.

This poem (the title poem of the collection) centres on a tussle for memory between the speaker, assumed to be Meredith, and his parents. Is it really possible that he can remember his grandfather, when at the moment recalled he was only a baby? They tell him that it isn’t, that he was far too young. There’s more at stake than first appears, since in the act of remembering (which is still an act, even if it is a fabrication), Meredith is not only preserving a link to a loved grandparent, but also constituting himself, writing himself a past. Without memories we are deprived of our sources and our ‘story’, and much as we’re urged to live in the moment, it’s disastrous to be denied our histories. As Joan Didion has it, ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live’. Remembering a moment knocks a chink in forgetting and through the aperture flows biography – all that we call life, beyond the bald biochemical fact. In the description of the memory, a narrative starts up, begins to chug and whirr. And then the lights come on.

Without memories we are deprived of our sources and our ‘story’, and much as we’re urged to live in the moment, it’s disastrous to be denied our histories.

Memories being valuable, they can also be commodified, and narratives frozen into versions that suit the powerful. ‘Stereoscope’ considers an image of Native Americans, made to impersonate themselves before their victors’ cameras:

A dividend of conquest is this space
for creativity, plate after plate
made to deck the parlours of the curious
and hymn the peoples they’d annihilate.

One way or another, the threat of annihilation is never far away. Meredith is sixty-six now, and in ‘Air camera’ he looks back in wonder and also perhaps a little shock at how quickly his own past is expanding. Several other poems recognise imminent obliteration on a social and planetary scale. When in ‘Stereoscope’ he writes of an ‘elegy/for what’s not gone’ he’s referring to the fate of those Native Americans who live still and yet whose stories seem all in the past. But the phrase applies equally well to any nature writing as we push Earth to its various ‘tipping points’ of no return. Presentiments of environmental disaster haunt many of these poems in repeated references to conflagration that don’t spare his beloved Usk valley. In ‘Steampunk jungle’, the collection’s midpoint and emotional high water mark , the feelings roused by a walk to the site of the Gleision Colliery disaster of 2011 accelerate into lines of almost uncontrollable force and momentum. The final quarter of this poem is as powerful as anything I have read in a long time.

The theme of time suits Meredith’s qualities as a poet. He’s startlingly good at selecting – ‘stilling’ – details to convey landscapes, interiors, events. In an old photo of his sons their hair is blown out ‘sideways in the wind’, motion and stillness making each other visible. In another poem, ‘Standing place’, he imagines the disturbance we cause to the repose of a room when we enter it. 

the sculpted teapot still as de Chirico
does a jelly shiver
and resets 

Amid an eerie distortion of time-space and objects roused to sentience, Meredith introduces, first, the most boring verb in English and then… a jelly – yet without losing the spookiness. It’s a good trick, and it reveals an aspect of his most characteristic trait as a poet, namely the dextrous use he makes of the tensions in his own personality between flightiness and earthiness, vulnerability and assertion, loquacity and restraint.

Poets are people to whom language comes unnaturally, and I daresay in the right company, and by halfway through the third pint, Meredith’s fluency could reach a point of virtuoso excess. But when writing he knows how to temper the gift, and not only by a mastery of form (which didn’t save Auden, for instance, from his late windiness) but by a respect for the resistance of words themselves – the material, historical and ethical ballast that partly determines what can be done with them. ‘Materialist’ begins by describing the composition of ink from oak gall, and ends

If a word is life
And a word is death
It’s bred in the blood
That comes of earth

This is implicitly ethical language, and though we can’t be sure that it’s Meredith speaking, the authoritative diction gives it the air of a credo. Meredith is indeed concerned with ethics, but whereas R. S. Thomas, a poet he occasionally resembles, delights in meting out the implacable moral (while the reader crouches in the brace position, sensing the coming impact but unable to stop it), the poems in Still gain ethical force from their cumulative revelation of a sensibility that’s alternately wise, funny, ironic, tender and barbed, but always with a sympathetic curiosity about other people and the shared world. 

Poets are people to whom language comes unnaturally, and I daresay in the right company, and by halfway through the third pint, Meredith’s fluency could reach a point of virtuoso excess.

Which is all very well, but in the end a poem is judged by its language, and when Meredith allows himself to take little flights, what beautiful lines can result. The ‘pale jazzhands of windfarms’, the ‘late sun rub[bing]’ a pearl/through pastel clouds, and the astonishing, almost baroque ‘draped electric green aurorae’ of the northern sky

* * *

Which do you find more beautiful: the sensory inundation of a spring wood, with its incalculable interactions of leaves, birds, light and shadow, or rather one or two birds in winter, silhouetted in a net of branches, graven on a white sky? The cover of Still shows part of Breughel the Elder’s ‘Hunters in the Snow’, a painting that in postcard reproduction has been Blu-tacked to my wall for nearly twenty years. Not only that – the detail selected for the cover is the very one I’ve always been drawn to: these same winter birds doubly frozen in frost and paint in the bare winter trees. 

‘And then that single upright crow
On the bough of a decorous framing tree
Real as any you’ve ever seen’

I have to take issue with Meredith here; with its set-back legs it looks less like a crow than an oddly marooned moorhen. Well, never mind that, but you can see immediately why this painting appealed to him, caught as he is, as we all are, halfway between stillness and flight.

Review by Nathan Munday, Wales Arts Review

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Nathan Munday examines Still, a poetry collection from Christopher Meredith which explores stillness, memory and, in keeping with the author’s previous work, the Welsh landscape.

I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed Erling Kagge’s Silence: In the Age of Noise, but I found myself returning to one of its sentences: 

Keep in mind that the silence you experience is different from that which others experience. Everyone possesses their own.

I appreciate this notion of a rainbow silence, a cesur differing from person to person. While trekking towards the white poles it must have felt as if that silence was crafted for Kagge alone. Having experienced the high places myself, I get it: ‘It feels good to wonder on your own’, he writes. But then, while reading Christopher Meredith’s new collection Still, it dawned on me that the word I resisted in Kagge’s sentence was ‘possession’ — a peak-bagging individualism which was shaken recently by the stillness we all shared. Meredith’s craftmanship takes us to the ‘edge of sense’; yes, he takes us with him, and generously shares his thoughts while doing so.  

PEEPING IN

Still’s cover is haiku-like — simple and clean. The first thing I did was scan the collection for that wonderful crow that appears on the duck-egg canvas like a punctuation mark. I found it among the quasi-ekphrastic couplets of ‘Even in dreamscapes’, a poem that muses on Pieter Bruegel’s ‘The Hunters in the Snow (Winter)’ c.1565. The cover’s artwork is a detail from both pieces then, balancing landscape with dreamscape; ‘Hunching figures lurch and pass’ while ‘polyphonic’ dogs’ tails express a musical movement only heard in our minds. The damaged sign swings above the hunters, pausing ludically with the words dit is inden Hert or ‘to the deer’. Yes, that winter of discontent, fuelled by the hunters’ poor catch, is interrupted by the stillness of the bird, ominously mirroring us as we peep in. 

Bruegel invented this scene by the way, mish-mashing an Alpine vista with Flemish architecture. Nevertheless, we are ‘peeping in’ to this world, and ‘we [too] can never escape the frame’. 

The philosophical layering in these words gives us a taster of what lies ahead in the rest of the collection. Paul Henry is spot on when he says that ‘we are left haunted, à la Frost, by a deep loneliness in the human condition’; we are all perturbed by those ‘desert places’ within — a loneliness that includes ‘us unawares’ at times. 

AT THE BANISTER…

The ‘still point of the turning world’, Eliot’s curious vanishing point, is the stuff of the soul, memory’s realm which, as the speaker states in ‘Moving Picture’, grows ‘weighty’ ‘in this synaptic conjuring’. ‘The moving still’, a concept captured with the droplet in the title poem ‘Still’, is an example of what Sarah Crown has called Meredith’s ‘razor-keen’ precision.

Memory is the still of slow forgetting,
the black and aching decades boiled to air,
cooled to this crawling droplet in the pipe 
moving still and still in this suspension 
rolling on its empty convolutions
to catch and lose a world in hard white light. 

I feel included in these carefully chosen words: a ‘slow forgetting’ ‘boiled to air’. This was just one moment among many where I felt a shared stillness, something eerily familiar or uncanny. That ‘old man’ ‘at the banister’ morphed into my own grandfather quite quickly, a person who fell silent last year. A precious relic in the mind, and yet the speaker is bombarded with scepticism. The title of the next poem, ‘Air Camera’, suggests a constructed memory from a photograph; somebody else’s image ‘accidentally filed into mine’. Once again, this is something we all do; our earliest memories are often patched up with photographs. In the poem ‘Upstairs’, the speaker says that,

Something in us builds imaginary rooms
the walls somehow exhaling truth 
a rippled glass reflecting 
a familial face.

The personification in this stanza injects an organicity to that old idea of imaginative truth, an uncontrollable consciousness ‘exhaling’ reality. The deconstruction of the built cairn back in ‘Air Camera’, its stones slowly ‘unheaping’ in the mind, is another powerful image denying total fixity. We may possess our own galleries — what R. S. Thomas called the ‘gallery of the imagination’, or what Meredith calls ‘my memory bank’ — and yet, it’s a universal thing to ‘look again’ and search for gaps. The master poet, like Thomas before him, is privy to the apophatic way: a keen surveyor of gaps, silences, and stillness.

PLACE

‘Standing Place’, written in memory of Anne Cluysenaar, is one of my favourite poems in the collection. The speaker journeys into the stillness of the room, an experience flickering between the stillness of a ‘statue in an empty square’ and the moving blurs of an old photograph. Blaise Pascal wrote that ‘all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone’. This speaker is able:

When you step in to the empty room
you interrupt whatever it was
that the room wasn’t doing 

So begins the questor. The lexicon is imbued with that Quaker ‘stillness’, an experiential mode which was weaved into Cluysenaar’s own oeuvre. In an interview with Alice Entwistle, Cluysenaar gave us an insight into her dialogue with one of the great metaphysical poets, Henry Vaughan:

"There’s a passage in [Vaughan’s] ‘Vanity of Spirit’ where, after a night literally ‘spent’ in thought, he walks to the little spring on the hillside behind his farm. He recalls how he’s analysed nature, looking for the source or ‘spring’ of creation, without success, until he came to ‘traces and sounds of a strange kind’ in himself, which seemed to be part of ‘this mighty spring’. That poem seems to favour inner experience over analytical reasoning."

Meredith’s poetry, especially the sequence ‘Still Air’, is written in that same tradition which emerged out of the Usk landscape. In a recent interview, the poet stated that Wales is ‘perhaps always, part of the context’. Here’s a taster of that Welsh craftsman at work:

This is the standing place
where you can’t stay
the still lake in the dream of trees
doing still
the thing it does not do.

These are the words telling nothing
that are there before
and after you. 

My copy is already well-worn. I find myself returning to the poetry especially because we’re all on the cusp of movement and noise. This is a deeply intelligent and moving collection which deserves much more than this brief survey. Read it, study it, and enjoy it. Talk about it with one another before basking in that stillness, that hush which descends ‘whenever you examine great art’.  

Review by Joshua Rees, Buzz Magazine

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Still is a superb new collection of poems that again exemplifies his mastery of the written word. The poems dwell on memory and loss, among many other things. But unlike Vernon’s lengthy and digressive diaristic recollections, the writing here is spare and subtle. The unsaid is as important as the said.

These are poems about the ways we occupy the world, or as Meredith puts it, “the shape we make in time”.  Despite some moments of introspection, these are poems that dare to comprehend the sheer vastness of the world. They also consider how we can achieve permanence in spite of our impermanence. One of the strongest poems, On Allt Yr Esgair, suggests that art may be the answer: “Under the serpent galaxy / the motifs of stone hills recur / in scoops and curls across the sky… What else is left for us but this? / With pen and brush to shape our track / like moths and hills and streams and stars / a human shadow on the rock”.

Still is a quiet, contemplative book which offers no certainties aside from the fact that Meredith’s words deserve to outlive his time.

Review by Sheenagh Pugh, Live Journal

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Sound of leaves not falling

The title of one of the poems here, it could well also stand as an epigraph, for there is a lot of space, absence, not-happening, right from the beginning of this collection:

When you step in to the empty room
you interrupt whatever it was
that the room wasn’t doing (“Standing place”)

These first few poems are also much concerned with memory, its unreliability, the way it fictionalises and casts doubt on reality.

No no, they say. You never saw him.
He couldn’t stand, and you were far too young.
But you did. He could. (“Still”)

Solid furniture is “ruffled”; a sofa stares at “where you seem to be”. But amongst this doubt, insubstantiality and shifting, another possible epigraph, from “In this stilled air the turning trees”, would be “the shape we make in time”.  Mr Meredith has been a remarkably busy bee of late, bringing out both a novel and a poetry collection in the same month, and it is natural to look for correspondences between them. The novel, Please, reviewed here, is much concerned with the shape we make in time, its impermanence and how it may be differently seen, not only by different people but by the same person at different stages of life. These concerns also haunt this collection; it often seems to be trying to establish what locus exactly humans can claim in “their” landscape, “the standing place/where you can’t stay”.

It is a collection very aware of landscape, as this poet has always been, but while sharp, observational language like “the inimical gorgeous cold” (“Even in dreamscapes”) could have come from any of his collections, the sense of the vastness of landscape compared to its temporary human inhabitants in “North coast swing” seems new: 

the nuances of grey stretch out immense, unhuman
into the toppled corridor of air
that rifts the sea and cloud.  

Various ways of memorializing the dead – statues, photographs, writing, cherishing mementoes, human memory itself – crop up, and all, in the end, seem inadequate, erased. The narrator of “Upstairs” looks for traces of a dead woman in her former rooms:

Something in us builds imaginary rooms
the walls somehow exhaling truth
a rippled glass reflecting
a familial face.
And on the battlements must be a ghost,
mustn’t there, with a remembered voice  

But in the end:

I could think of nothing
but a steep path down a cliff
all rock and light and moving air
and at its end
the sea.
 

Dry humour is still, as ever, a feature. In “Village birds”, our jackdaw-narrators assume human civilisation has evolved purely for their benefit: 

We bring meaning
to your heapings of the curious rocks.

Those chimneys are evolved
for purging jackdaws’ ticks.

The privet rooms are meant for us.
We hold our councils on your walls 

But the sardonic humour is darkened by our realisation that this assumption is no more fanciful than our own habit of supposing (like Don Marquis’s toad Warty Bliggens) that the planet we live on was created for our convenience. In one of the last poems, “On Allt yr Esgair”, the human is more or less assimilated into the landscape, with an acceptance that, inadequate as they may be, pen and brush are the only ways we can make our mark on it: 

Under the serpent galaxy
the motifs of stone hills recur
in scoops and curls across the sky
cutting the landscape’s signature. […]  

What else is left for us but this?
With pen and brush to shape our track,
like moths and streams and hills and stars,
a human shadow on the rock.

 Technically very subtle and varied, with an unobtrusive tracery of half-rhyme running through it, this collection has moments where it veers into ballad, legend and folk-tale territory. “The train north”, an account of a journey not taken (how characteristically for this collection) during the poet’s time in Finland, is a stand-out poem for its strangeness and edginess, while “Nightfall” is a very powerful eco-poem that manages to be menacing rather than preachy:
 

Light cools
on the hill above the villages.
The shadowline
is flowing up the field.
See the wounded
limping from the ridges
with rags tied
round the remnant of a world.
They watch
the houses’ gradual effacement
under the shadow
as each light goes out.
The villagers
are shuttering the casements
and call
for barricades across the street.
 

It’s interesting that both the novel and this collection have monosyllabic titles. This certainly is not because Meredith’s lifelong fascination with, and delight in, words is diminishing, but there is at times in these poems a sense of spareness, of a view pared down to what matters: the bones of a landscape, the space where a person is, or sometimes is not. 

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