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In his 2001 Anthology of Twentieth-Century British and Irish Poetry, Keith Tuma unveils a jostle of unmitigated modernists, blighted youths, and marginalized women and minorities, all of them fighting for space with the respectable, the canonical, and the representative. Tuma’s most valuable recoveries concentrate in the mid-century and testify in several instances to T.S. Eliot’s bold generosity as a poetry editor at Faber & Faber. One such recovery is the Argentine-born Welsh poet Lynette Roberts. Tuma publishes two sections from her second volume, a book-length poem titled Gods with Stainless Ears that Roberts wrote during the Second World War but did not publish until 1951. In doing so he reintroduces a poet who had seemed doomed to irremediable obscurity.
Roberts, a schizophrenic, suffered a breakdown in 1956 and was repeatedly hospitalized thereafter, living in poverty around Carmarthen Bay, near Swansea, until her death in 1994. A 1998 Collected Poems from the Welsh publisher Seren was pulped upon issue when her family took offense at its preface. Gods with Stainless Ears seemed destined to forever circulate in photocopies among graduate students and poets with a taste for the recondite. Now at last arrives a handsome, elegantly introduced, and tactfully annotated Collected Poems from Carcanet, to be followed by a prose collection, both edited by Patrick McGuinness. And now Roberts can finally be recognized as the author of an outstandingly important long poem and a small group of fine lyrics.
From a historical perspective, there are four obvious ways to classify, and thus understand, Roberts: as British, as Welsh, as a woman, and as a war poet. McGuinness’s introduction provides a good orientation, though he seems uneasy about her elusiveness and overstates her indebtedness to Pound through Charles Olson. Tuma discerned a link between Roberts and the British New Apocalyptic poets of the 1940s, placing her alongside Dylan Thomas and Edith Sitwell, their Romantic fustian keeping the snug bar warm amidst postwar austerity and social conformism. The young Lynette Roberts was friendly with Sitwell (to whom she dedicated Gods with Stainless Ears), sketched by Wyndham Lewis, married to the Welsh nationalist poet Keidrych Rhys, and correspondent to Robert Graves. This matrix fits well with her highly localized modernism, intent on reanimating bodies of tradition to resist a planned and administered world.
The first stanza of “Poem from Llanybri,” which opens Roberts’s first book, Poems (1944), constitutes a short manifesto of her localism. But its idiosyncratic usages (such as “swank” as a transitive verb and the suppression of conventional punctuation) align her poetics more with modernism than with the warmed-over Georgianism still promoted even today in Britain and Ireland:
If you come my way that is . . .
Between now and then, I will offer you
A fist full of rock cress fresh from the bank
The valley tips of garlic red with dew
Cooler than shallots, a breath you can swank
In the village when you come.
Embodiment of tradition may be linguistic—as is customary in post-chapel, post-socialist Wales, reflected in Roberts’s use of Welsh-language epigraphs as well as English-language dialect—or it may be mythological, essentially gendered, or even technological. Roberts’s village mix evolved into a radical but conservatively inclined communitarianism, shocked and jolted by electricity, industry, and concentrated bombing.
Gods with Stainless Ears is a home-front work that may be set alongside Elizabeth Bowen’s wartime short stories and Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts, and it stands as Roberts’s chief claim to contemporary attention. Unlike her metropolitan contemporaries, Roberts wrote from the hinterland of a provincial city, the port of Swansea, whose incineration reddened the horizon from her Carmarthenshire hamlet of Llanybri. The difference in perspective is yet sharper than this suggests, for Roberts, born in Buenos Aires to a family that had for generations lived in Australia, nonetheless agreed with Welsh nationalists in perceiving Wales as an occupied country. There is no sense in the poem that this is her war; rather, it is the war of “TAWDRY LAIRDS AND JUGGLERS OF MINT,” of “a jingle of Generals / And Cabinet Directors,” “those hankering / After pig standards of gold” whose troops drunkenly tear down the Welsh flag. The life of conscripts is represented as sheer waste, with men slopping out their own urinals when not brawling among themselves. Roberts shared local resentment that children from the slums of East London had been evacuated to village homes, making it impossible to take in Welsh children once Swansea became a target of German bombing. For her poem’s hero (and it is subtitled “A Heroic Poem”), Roberts crashes a solitary fighter pilot, an archetypal figure of modernity for poets of the early 1930s, and makes him Jewish. There is no way she could have allowed him to be English.
The wartime economy, once sentimentalized for its solidarity and now for freeing women from housework into industrial jobs, was for Roberts a trampling of local culture by the mobilized state and the harbinger of an economy globalized to compete with the Soviet sphere. Loving couples were torn from each other in the interests of war and productivity. The poem’s dystopian final section, with its vision of “Chromium Cenotaphs — / Work and pay for all!,” sees the figure of Keidrych Rhys, identified by his military serial number, consigned to a concentration camp emblazoned with the words “Mental Home For Poets.” No wonder, in a country clinging to its wartime mythology as empire and economic ascendancy slipped away, that Roberts’s poem was unwelcome—as unwelcome as Henry Green’s Concluding (1948), with its authoritarian boarding school for girls redolent of similar disenchantment.
Roberts’s view of the home front is therefore greatly at odds with a London perspective. As for gender, Roberts was decidedly not a feminist in the conventional sense; she regarded childbearing both as biological destiny and as the focus of human hope for the future, echoing the general perspective—though not the eugenicism—of Mina Loy, her poetic forebear. In Part V of the poem, set on a cloud in the fourth dimension, Roberts elaborates a startling vision of homemaking as female techné. While her lover pores over “wooden table and glazed chart,” she becomes a kind of cosmic housewife, in
Sandals and swimsuit lungs naked to the light,
Sitting on chair of glass with no fixed frame
Leaned to the swift machine threading over twill:
‘Singer’s’ perfect model scrolled with gold,
Chromium wheel and black structure, firm on
Mahogany plinth. Nails varnished with
Chanel shocking! Ears jewelled: light hand
Tipped with dorcas’ silver thimble tracing thin
Although horrified by the rational and administrative brand of so-called Fabian British socialism, Roberts treated technology as ideologically neutral; hence, chromium’s modern gleam can be either baleful or attractive. Her descriptions of landscapes integrate the organic and mechanical, not just symbolically or through visual confusion, with birds, airplanes, and angels occupying the same stratum, but with such tight formulations as “sprockets of kale.” Like “lime stud / Whitening fields, gulls and stones attending them,” these rivets punctuate a text more characterized by flux, whether driven by ambivalence or contradiction. Ambivalence is exemplified in a line repeated variously in Part I: “Into euclydian cubes grid air is planed,” “grid air” successively becoming “tempered air” and “carol air.” Air’s organization might entail the reduction of the empyrean to plotted air lanes but might also express the tempered and cadenced air of song—and of lyric poetry in its stanzaic blocks and lilt.
But Roberts’s prosody insists on her work being read as more than a historical document, and it needs a clearer context than either Patrick McGuinness or Keith Tuma provides. Roberts cites Welsh-language models, and neither editor makes anything of her reference in Part V of Gods with Stainless Ears to “Caribbean Crane,” which the poet glosses as a reference to Hart Crane. And if her long poem resembles any other, it is surely Crane’s The Bridge. The Bridge plainly anticipates Roberts in its natural and mechanical hybridity (“Invisible valves of the sea”), in its curious mixture of abstraction and visual detail (“Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks, / A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene”), and in its cosmic architecture (“abysmal cupolas of space”). The resemblance extends to construction, both poems being tensed between forward impetus and the drag exercised by involuted stanzas. Roberts also picks up Crane’s cinematographic scrolling, announcing in her preface that “scenes and visions ran before me like a newsreel,” and in the sci-fi Part V (first published as “Cwmcelyn” in Poems) she anticipates Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death, both in its theme and its swooping galactic takes. Consider the following stanzas from Part I: In fear of fate, flying into land Orcadian birds pair
And peal away like praying hands; bare
Aluminium beak to clinic air; frame
Soldier lonely whistling in full corridor train,
Ishmaelites wailing through the windowpane,
O the cut of it, woe sharp on the day
Sealed in blood, the ten-toed woodpecker,
A dragon of wings 1 6 2 0 B 6
4 punctuates machine-gun from the quarry pits:
soldiers, tanks, lorry make siege on the bay.
Freedom to boot. CONCLAMATION. COMPUNCTION.
Kom-pungk’-shun: discomforts of the mind deride
Their mood. Birds on the stirrups of the waterbride
Flush up, and out of time a tintinnabulation
Of voice and feather fall in and out of the ocean sky.
On one level “frame” and “cut” work as film directions, but these stanzas energize levels as shifting layers, giving rise to meteorological circulation. Precise observation is caught up in dynamic metaphor reminiscent of Percy Shelley, then surpassing any realistic imagery with such a phrase as “the stirrups of the waterbride.” This imaginative move anticipates the counterfactual poetics of Paul Celan or J.H. Prynne. While rhyme shapes inventions like “waterbride,” punning produces the deeply sardonic “freedom to boot,” associating “freedom” with conscription and violence. Every verbal and visual element interacts so that the woodpecker fades into a dragon—the symbol of Welsh nationhood—which in turn fades into a helicopter. The Cranian capitalization, in its assertive textuality, receives mocking enunciation, like a sergeant major taunting an intellectual.
Anglo-American literary modernism, which challenges realism through its attention to perceptual process, has descended through two main channels. One has led to the decadent lyric of personal authenticity, which relates all to a self whose model trustworthiness is supported by mention of parents and children and by tireless reenactments of infantile and adolescent trauma. Another has led to the varieties of social and linguistic constructivism that embrace structuralism, poststructualism, postcolonialism, certain strands of feminism, and queer theory. Beside these channels stand blocked capillaries, which might expand to receive some of the force now channeled into self-authenticating or Language poetry. If they did, conceivably one might pulse with sociolinguistic intensities—that is, language as it occupies subjects and subjects as they occupy language. Through its clenching but still mobile stanzas, Gods with Stainless Ears incorporates Roberts’s hyper-responsiveness to the languages that impinged on her.
For Roberts, such intensities might be found in village dialect, in the idiolects of physical intimacy, and in the jargons of chemistry and technology. A poetry of intensities consistent with her communitarianism demanded a respect for repetition and persistence, while gathering new intensive folds of its own. In Gods with Stainless Ears, Roberts achieves this formally through “the water-rail of tides,” the combing motion of “parallel nerves” and “hurting lines” whose propulsion is peristaltic, immutably in place while also pressing forward. The poem’s archetypal couple, evidently Lynette and Keidrych, produce a child through her forcefully described contractions. By such deep wave motions the poem holds; it is slatched, to use a characteristic Roberts word-retrieval signifying the dips between wave crests. Such force drives a lyricism neither sentimentally individualist nor carcerally constructivist. It is worthy of emulation and extension.
But Gods with Stainless Ears is not the sum of Lynette Roberts’s achievement. Collected Poems rescues from an unpublished third book a few short lyrics of a distressing exigency, as we see in “Englyn”:
Where poverty strikes the pavement—there is found
No cripple like contentment
Which stultifies all statement
Of bright thought from the brain’s tent.
Through its obtrusive use of rhyme as a semantic motor, this writing anticipates uncannily the manner of John Wieners, the great Boston poet of the second half of the 20th century, and especially his 1970 book Nerves. It is intriguing that Roberts’s rhyming hews to the Welsh form of Englyn unodl union to accommodate an effect that in both poets recalls “clang association,” a linking together of words by sound that psychiatry regards as symptomatic of schizophrenia. Such deeply embedded affinities across time and culture suggest that lyric feeds on a biological substrate. By the same token, modernist poets can never resist the importuning of traditional modes, often seemingly more wayward than Roberts’s local attentiveness.
Lynette Roberts’s writing faltered not only for personal reasons, but because in postwar Britain there was no one to hear it. Tradition came to mean a commonsense parochialism, and modernism became academic. The publication of this book in the wake of Tuma’s anthology should therefore help to stir stagnant waters.
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