Glyn Edwards’s first collection has been greatly anticipated by those already familiar with his work. Vertebrae will not disappoint, full as it is of haunting, carefully-crafted poems. The structure is precise: 33 poems representing the 33 vertebrae, a framework which holds the collection firmly as a brace. In the opening poem, ‘The Land or Body Tide,’ where the poet and his wife await the results of an ultrasound, lines reflect the shape of the baby’s spine:
his body is bracing itself to absorb shock
she plots the thirty-three spinal vertebrae
they’re heavy enough to carry his mass
the atlas bone is where his skull rests
and the axis will allow his world to spin.
Their son’s progress is charted throughout the collection, often with sadness at his growing independence. In ‘What to do with his old clothes?’ Edwards remembers how they packed away each babygrow, weighing ‘the memory of him inside it.’ In ‘Backstroke,’ the poet holds his son tight:
And your arms, your back, boil with age.
Today I taught you how to grow away from me,
Yet here you are, being held, holding on.
We see Arthur birdwatching, collecting frogspawn, swimming, and in the final poem, ‘Marrow,’ now old enough to question his own mortality when he finds a swallow ‘unzipped beneath a rosebush.’ An acceptance of death, loss and the fragility of life underpins the collection, a seam of tenderness running through it like a spinal cord.
Edwards is a pilgrim, treading in others’ footsteps, yet carving new paths in the poetic landscape. It’s a brave poet who, in a first collection, is gutsy and skilful enough to write response poems while avoiding the trap of clumsy imitation. ‘Two Paths Diverge in a Yellow Wood’ comprises imagined responses from Thomas and Frost to ‘The Road Not Taken,’ Thomas’s ending with the conclusion that ‘it was not two roads you saw diverge but time/ Forcing open our friendship, forging my fate.’ This is bold, confident writing, Edwards demonstrating considerable mastery of form as well as content.
Edwards is also traveller and adventurer, whether driving to find Ted Hughes’s farmhouse, searching out Emily Brontë in the ‘tumbledown timbers’ on Haworth moors, or clambering up Sir John’s Hill, where ‘the path hangs loose as gossamer’ (‘The Birthday Walk’). These journeys of homage are couched in rich, resonant language.
At the heart of the book is communication, our interaction with humans and the environment, along with the struggle for language in which to express it. In ‘Night fishing,’ a pool becomes a bed at night, a pike the metaphor for those glimmers of inspiration so elusive to capture:
To trap it,
I’d force tired fingers down my throat
and catch the dense greengold gills
as they thrashed to be swallowed back
into a crypt of gut, then haul
it from my head in waking gloom
and wrap its snarl in puddled paper.
‘Lambing Language’ sees the poet wrestle with syntax and mutations, ‘carelessly/shitting accidents until soiled language/greys my coat and I am too stubborn/to wipe it away.’ ‘[B]lack words become trapped bats’ to his son in ‘Storm Arthur,’ while in ‘The Hide,’ the boy ‘breathed out birds/on the glass and coloured them in nature books.’ ‘Voicemail’ movingly describes finding an old message from his grandmother, where ‘This fragile voicemail, distorted/as distant radio,/becomes a monologue of your final days.’ So words link nature and humanity, and span the bridges between life and death.
A couple of poems perhaps don’t sit so comfortably within the structure Edwards has created. ‘Perce Blackborow Stowed Away on the Endurance’ was a poem I loved, but seemed a little too removed in subject and time-frame from the others. The tiny font size was also an uncomfortable read!