I first encountered Meirion Jordan’s poems at a reading at the Troubadour in 2010. For reasons long since forgotten I was in a vile mood. The last thing I felt like was listening to poetry, but James Methven was reading as part of a Seren line-up and I’d promised to go along for moral support.
It turned out to be one of the best poetry readings I can remember. Amy Wack and Zoë Skoulding compered; Pascale Petit read a selection of her wonderful Frida Kahlo poems from What the Water Gave Me; Patrick McGuinness, Siobhan Campbell and Samantha Wynne-Rhydderch variously wowed the audience, as did James; and I half remember Carol Rumens reading an impressive piece with some tricksy pronouns, though I couldn’t swear that was definitely the same evening.
In the midst of all this a smartly-dressed young poet took the microphone. One of the joys of live readings is discovering poets you’ve never heard of, but tonight the Imp of the Misanthropic was perched on my shoulder, impatient to dislike some verse. So far the standard had been consistently high; the Imp sourly wondered if these next poems might change that.
They didn’t. Meirion Jordan had the audience from his opening line: “I, Yuri Gagarin, having not seen God”. Everything slowed oh-so-slightly; the smoke cleared in the room (this was three years after the smoking ban but memory is a hopeless embellisher); nobody muttered, nobody breathed too loudly. Seren have a recording of the poem on YouTube: it’s not the same as hearing it live, but it’s well worth two minutes of your life.
Next day I hurried to Blackwell’s at lunchtime to buy a copy of Moonrise, Jordan’s debut collection. Over the next couple of days I became convinced he was the genuine article. By the weekend I was already wondering what he’d do next.
The answer is 2012’s Regeneration. Printed as two books back-to-back (with two title pages, two copyright pages and two prefaces, meaning there’s no clue as to which you should read first), the collection is made up of Red Book (based on the stories of the Mabinogi) and White Book (based on more widely-known Arthurian legends). These are not translations, versions or even (in spite of the cover blurb) re-imaginings. They are a type of poem that doesn’t properly have a name, its closest cousins being the modernist re-makings of old stories in The Waste Land, In Parenthesis or Mercian Hymns – here rendered in poems as fresh and contemporary as they are radioactive with myth and tradition.
The poems of White Book are voiced for assorted major and minor characters from Arthurian legend (except for Arthur himself, the absent centre around which all of the others define themselves). Each reflects on the Arthur they knew, sometimes recounting events (directly or obliquely) and sometimes abstracting into something less like narrative. Historical periods and speaking voices blur. Alongside, 56 footnotes tell the life story of Jordan’s grandfather – although the rule that the “I” of a poem is never entirely the “I” of the poet holds for footnotes as much as for lyrics.
Red Book is the shorter of the two and the less explicitly-narrative. On the one hand it is closer to a more “traditional” poetry collection (albeit one thematically held together by the Mabinogi); on the other it is clearly a companion-piece to White Book, and the more regular verse forms and absence of footnotes can’t entirely remove the poems’ otherworldly strangeness. Red Book is also more visibly obsessed with manuscripts and the ways in which stories are transmitted – although White Book has something of this (and the two take their names from the Red Book of Hergest and the White Book of Rhydderch, in which many of these early stories are preserved).
There are many routes through (or at least into) this labyrinth. The two books maintain a complex and multi-layered dialogue with one another, as do the individual poems within and between the books, and the footnotes that interrupt White Book in mid-sentence or mid-phrase. These are allusive, elusive poems – difficult, but also heartbreakingly beautiful and often profound.
The writing is very good indeed. Jordan can evoke a primal myth-world as economically as Picasso could evoke a bull with three pen-strokes: a world of “places without name, / or names partly forgotten; / of rivers called ‘river’ / of hills called ‘hill'”. The voices that Jordan summons from this ur-place speak in a taut and haunting language (midway between Merrill’s “tone licked clean” and some of the more unsettling Jungian archetypes). Here is Elen towards the end of the second part of White Book:
. though your heart is broken
. remember me, if only
. for the stainless knight
. I bore over the cusp
. of the dark
. into the world’s sea.
And here is Aneirin as rendered in Red Book (no less mythic for being updated):
He is a gas fire left on all night
. he is a blue fringe
. of rigor mortis
. he is lungs filling with
. the tiniest
. of silicon
. you have ever seen.
Some books cannot be understood properly from too close in time: it takes a decade or so to let them settle, to see how they fit with what comes before and after. I suspect this may be one of those books. But it’s already beyond doubt a stunning achievement (and I’m already wondering what Jordan is going to do next).
Regeneration, Meirion Jordan, Seren, 2012