Saturday, 3 November 2012

Review: Clueless Dogs, by Rhian Edwards

A couple of years ago I reviewed Rhian Edwards' tall-lighthouse pamphlet, Parade the Fib, on Rogue Strands. In fact, you can still read it here. 2012, meanwhile, has seen the publication of her first full collection with Seren Books, titled Clueless Dogs.

Clueless Dogs is an extremely good read. The best poems from the pamphlet run through its spine: Gravy and Sheer are excellent pieces, while Marital Visit is an outstanding poem (the book's worth buying for this one slab of brilliance alone!): a female, lyrically-charged concave mirror of the type of material that Hugo Williams invoked in Billy's Rain. Edwards is terrific at portraying doomed human relationships.

The blurb for Clueless Dogs states that she won the John Tripp Award for Spoken Poetry 2011-12. Now, I'm not going to get bogged down in the pointless argument of page vs performance. Nevertheless, I do recall sharing a stage with Edwards in London a few years ago. She was compelling, performing her poems such as Marital Visit without recourse to the page. She'd learnt them by heart and was able to engage with the audience by laying open her vulnerability.

I do wonder, however, just whether she is quite so successful with other themes, for reasons I'll try to explain. The very qualities that made the "personal" poems so captivating when performed "live" are also those that pervade her work on other subjects, yet in these cases without the same degree of emotional connection with the audience/reader. Let's take an example: where the circular ending to Marital Visit is devastating in its finality, in other cases the chopping-off of loose ends seems forced, closing instead of opening up beyond the text itself. For instance, here are the final lines from Bridgend:

"...The Samaritans have been lobbying the Vale
for years for a phone box
with a direct dial to a volunteer.
Eventually, the council surrendered and built
the box at the foot of the cliff.

Edwards is offering us an ending that's satisfying at first yet slightly facile on rereading. She's reaching for (and obtaining) an effect on her audience rather than her reader.

Clueless Dogs is not perfect, yet its flaws are intriguing. It shows Edwards reaching out into new themes and exploring how her technique can evolve to deal with them. Let's not forget, however, that it is top-notch when evoking moments, scenes and perspectives on couples that are destined to part. Rhian Edwards has already achieved more than many poets: a new, enlightening view of an old subject. The signs are that there's a lot more to come.

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