New Selected Poems
Carcanet, paperback, £12.95
Robert Minhinnick was born in Neath in 1952, and now lives in Porthcawl. Throughout the long and peripatetic career from which this impressive selection is drawn, he has carried the very particular landscape of south Wales with him: the intimate intermingling of urban and rural, of human and wild, and the sense of being at the edge of things. In ‘Sker’ from his second collection Native Ground (1979) he writes ‘Everywhere the sea, pungent as mustard/We come over the ploughland to the dunes/And realise this is all we know/Of wilderness.’ He has a strong sense of the paradox of borders, and of edges: they are, by definition, remote from the centre, but without them, the centre would be meaningless.
In one of his characteristic tropes, Minhinnick yokes together in a simile human and wild elements: A ‘mussel shell opens/And shuts like a clasp knife’; the beaks of peregrines are ‘tin-openers for the sternum’; he describes ‘the rattle of nightjars/Their voices whirring like knives on a grindstone.’ These examples are drawn from early poems, and it’s one of the pleasures of having a poet’s own selection of work over a long career that one can see a voice change and develop, while the speaker remains essentially the same. In his later poetry, Minhinnick is more likely to use a form of allegory than simile as his passport across the human-wilderness border. In ‘The Hourglass’ from King Driftwood (2008), sand becomes a sort of Virgil to Minhinnick’s Dante, leading him through an inferno of desertification, environmental catastrophe and forced, almost hopeless migration. In ‘From the Rockpool’ (After the Hurricane, 2002) the sea appears in a sequence of different costumes, promiscuously invading the human world: ‘One day I dreamed/I will turn on the light/and the sea will have flooded the kitchen;/I will turn on the computer/and the sea will have filled the screen;/I will go to my bed/and find the waves waiting in their heartbreaking underwear.’ Crossing borders makes them real, while at the same time pointing out their provisionality. South Wales, with its abundant evidence of nature claiming and reclaiming abandoned industrial landscapes, becomes a privileged place from which to contemplate the potential for the planet to take its revenge against human over-reaching: ‘And everywhere the human print/And everywhere the absence of humanity.’
For all that Minhinnick’s poetry can be seen as emerging from a particular place, it is by no means parochial. His poems might take place almost anywhere, and almost anything can crop up in them. There are sequences set in Baghdad, the Sahara and Rio de Janeiro, and we encounter Lou Reed and Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs. And for all that this is, in large part, political poetry, it’s never reductively so. In another early poem ‘Ways of Learning’ he describes his method: ‘I have/No facts, only the poem’s approach/To knowledge, no memory but the glass/Of metaphor I hold like a mirror/To the past.’ The slightly awkward self-importance disappears quite soon, but the sense that metaphor is a way of knowing rather than of saying remains. In Minhinnick, metaphor is a metaphor for metaphor – what could be less like a metaphor than a mirror, which passively recapitulates everything it faces? And what could be more like a metaphor than a mirror, which creates an entirely new version of everything it faces, new, and more importantly, factitious? And metaphor is another way of crossing borders.
In their spectacular omnivorousness, there are poems here that bring John Ashbery to mind; their attention to the detail of the natural world, and the sense in them that something is actually happening makes me think of R.F. Langley. But the abiding impression is that almost from the start, Robert Minhinnick knows what a Minhinnick poem should look like – and it doesn’t quite look like anything else on earth.