“It’s time to be the people we’ll become”

My Family and Other Superheroes, Johnathan Edwards, Seren, £9.99
reviewed by Pippa Little

edwards my family

The poems in My Family and Other Superheroes are engaging, warm and deceptively straightforward. They gather in memories and experiences from family life in small-town post-industrial South Wales with exuberant imagery and an affectionate yet gimlet-eyed perspective. Edwards tells a great story and he has the advantage of his dry humour to tell it with, in all its human foibles and absurdities. He is particularly acute on Welshness, as in the poem ‘In John F. Kennedy International Airport’ where the ‘toothy blonde’ at checkout is asked why “the flight to Cardiff’s off” and replies “Wales/has been cancelled”.

This collection has more to it than a celebration of times past and present, however, no matter how well the poet achieves these aims. Edwards’ voice is more interesting than that. His poetry explores time in ways that remind me of the magic realists and it is this treatment of time, I believe, which is the core of this collection. It’s certainly what draws me in as a reader.

On one hand Edwards’ sharp eye shows us a recognisable scenario of depressed contemporary terraced streets, kebab houses, Starbucks and football pitches peopled with familiar figures – the bus driver, the girl on the make-up counter, the local bullies who are brothers, skateboard kids – within the melancholy palimpsest of a lost mining industry and damaged remnants of that culture.

On the other, the imaginative range of that poetic eye turns it all inside out. Time becomes a living medium, moves back and forth through human lives: we don’t pass the time but time passes through us and then comes back for us, doing as it pleases. As in ‘The Bloke in the Coffee Shop’, who is “soon to be himself, but somewhere else”, time is the active force and it is anything but linear or formal or controlled. It is anarchic and passionate as in the strongest, most compelling poems here, ‘My Uncle Walks to Work, 1962’, ‘Capel Celyn’, ’Anatomy’, ‘Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren in Crumlin…’, ‘Half Time..’ and ‘Building My Grandfather’, where accepted notions of past and present transform into something part sinister, part exultant.
The overall effect is magical and the poems glow with re-reading. Whether wryly recalling his mother’s voice or re-arranging his family members in a human pyramid, the poet’s ability to create a plausible yet surreal universe makes for a far from comfortable read but definitely a most fascinating one. One line stays with me, the final line from ‘Half Time, Wales v. Germany, Cardiff Arms Park, 1991’, when the poet relives his youthful relationship with his father: “it’s time to be the people we’ll become.”

Pippa Little

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