“tools of the dead in the hands of the living”

Air Histories, Christopher Meredith, Seren, 2013, £8.99
reviewed by Richie McCaffery

Firstly, I need to declare my lack of Welsh to deal with certain poems in Air Histories. However, I find it particularly clever of Meredith to have a poem dealing with translation – ‘Y grib / Ridge’ – which states in English translated from Welsh:

In English it’s the dragon’s back, a name
for those who like their monsters
safely mythic, tame.

Here, the poet seems to be playing with us – taking language/ translation to high and, dare I say, ‘meta’ levels. Air is clearly a strong theme of the collection, with Daedalus soaring in his paramotor, but many of these poems are also grounded and earthed in the elements, as can be seen in ‘Earth Air’:

This piece of earth’s a billowing pavilion
you never quite peg down.
Odd corners have a stone church hammered in –
One day the earth will wake and stretch and sigh
and each church will pop its button
                                                        and she’ll fly.

One of the main achievements of these poems is to create a sense of aerial over-view – of vision that sees the connectedness of many things: the dead to the living, the inventions and tools of the dead in the hands of the living, the dead and the living in the landscape:

If woman’s blood can sing to moon,
when wind’s breath kills the rain on mountain
grass may walk again through stone and earth.

Meredith’s gaze, like the red kites in a number of his poems, does not dwell in one place too long and this gives rise to a collection of great variety and texture. With this, however, comes the occasional feeling of a lack in focus and a surface fleetingness. Some poems here struggle to achieve the air-borne quality of others, such as concrete experiments in ‘Arrowhead’ and ‘At Colonus’ which comes across at times as contrived – ‘Arrowhead’ seems to break and manipulate the words to fit its shape. That said, I sensed in these poems the same seriousness and playfulness as in Edwin Morgan’s concrete poetry of the 1960s. But even Morgan, with his ‘Little Blue Blue’, was not immune to accusations of clever-cleverness which I find particularly knowingly applied here in poems like ‘An outline description of Nihilia’:

The colours of the national flag are black
and black.
The citizens are mute.
The population of Nihilia is zero.
The country’s chief product is nothing.

However, any criticisms of such poems must be put aside when considering other poems in this collection as good as ‘The ones with the white hats’ which is a poem set in a dystopian future and ‘Daniel’s Piano’ – a poem in a similar vein, set in a future brutal regime where violence is disguised under a layer of polite chatter:

Daniel’s house stands
on a village they emptied.

Nobody talks of the village’s going.
Its old name is silenced.

Simon is a good man. His manner gentle.
The guests discuss poetry. Nobody plays.

Set alongside these more menacing poems are a series of poems about guitars and song and the attempts of the poet, craftsman and musician to get their song out there and heard in the midst of such struggle. It is these poems which make the collection one to keep returning to in works of music and witness, such as ‘The guitar maker Antonio de Torres in old age described by the priest Juan Martinez Sirvent’:

A pinch of air
was all he had.

That was fifty years ago and now
his work is his witness.
If witness was my work
perhaps I had come to terms with mysteries
or perhaps I failed.

Richie McCaffery

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