Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch has already established herself as one of the finest contemporary virtuosos of the dramatic monologue. Although there’s an element of this in every poem (the “I” of a poem is never entirely the “I” of the poet, even in the rawest confessional verse), something happens when a poem goes out of its way to use a voice that can’t belong to the person with their name on the cover, and in Wynne-Rhydderch’s poems that something is often magical.
Her last collection, Not in These Shoes, was seriously good: one of those books that leaves you wowed and cowed and worrying that the writer will never manage anything quite that dextrous again. Her latest, Banjo, is better.
Banjo is in two parts: the first a collage of voices from Paris to Powis via Hong Kong and Ellis Island; the second a cluster of lyrics voiced for some of the less famous members of Scott’s and Shackleton’s Antarctic expeditions between 1901 and 1916. Joining the two together is a preoccupation with the spaces between events, the small human dramas from which real life is made – whether around the edges of public history or something more private.
Many of the poems also contain some kind of twist – either of plot or of language – so where we end up isn’t quite where we expected when we set out. “Vive la Résistance” is a poignant and funny account of a parachute drop into occupied France that pivots into a wedding and a closing image somewhere between Chagal and a Terry Gilliam animation. Along the way it riffs on the convention of overly-convoluted espionage instructions while giving a mini-masterclass in line breaks: “So I … ran off to the lych gate / of Sainte Marie du Chêne where I awaited / an assignation with a Monsieur Lefas / who passed me a map in a cigarette packet // which I followed to a farm to be met by / a frowning chap in breeches”, and so on. Like much of Wynne-Rhydderch’s verse this looks effortless but isn’t. There’s a lot of artistry in these poems, very little of which they feel the need to make visible on the surface.
“Sharing Your Bed” is a quiet and moving account of a parent’s last night, progressing as much by what it doesn’t say as by what it does. The early lines “You won’t remember the weight / of my fingers warming yours” are cast in a different light by the end, when the speaker wakes “beside you / holding a lattice of stiff fingers.” It is also one of several poems in the collection to use images of plaiting and knots, another theme that connects the first and second parts of the book and that takes on new layers and nuances each time it recurs.
The Antarctic sequence “Erratics” is a powerful piece of writing, somehow managing to digest a decade and a half of history and context without regurgitating its (considerable) research. It also avoids the trap of easy prolepsis – the “if I knew then what I know now” trick that can often topple into laughable foreshadowing. When the poems skirt around the edges of the tragedy we know is coming, they do so with a perfect lightness of touch. Clissold the cook remarks of his expedition clothing “You could bury me in that get-up.” Third Officer Birdie talks about a novel “whose last five pages / were missing and we all tried / to guess the ending.”
Six members of various expeditions speak a total of twenty-one lyrics that build up to a complex composite picture of how people behave (and attempt to maintain a semblance of normality) in extreme conditions. Ideas of music, art and performance recur throughout the sequence, showing that performance is somehow central to how we stay sane and human (even if no one else is watching). There’s something here about how poems are written, a performance against the cold whiteness of the page, but as with everything in this wonderful book it’s not laboured or made explicit. There’s no naff metapoetry here: what we’re left with is a powerful sense of enduring humanity, even unto the end of the earth.
Banjo, Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch, Picador, 2012