On Sketty Sands, Joanna Boulter.
£3.00 UK post free. (ISBN 978-0-9540913-0-9) Arrowhead Press, 70 Clifton Road, Darlington, Co. Durham, DL1 5DX
On Sketty Sands, an unassuming, sepia-jacketed pamphlet of poems by Joanna Boulter, is so beautiful it makes me cry each time I read it. The sequence is bound by real people – their loves, their loss – and by the sea. 'These were my people,' the poet tells us. And then we meet them:
William and Eleanor Anne,
and their eight children –
Iris, Dolly, Muriel, Stephen,
Eleanor, Marjorie, Nancy, Gwen.
The living voices of Boulter's dead relatives ripple through the verse. So do the names of the places they knew and the houses they lived in. Every line is infused with the Welsh lilt of Sketty Sands. 'A singsong echo's not/ language enough to claim a nation by' observes the author (she now lives far from Wales) but it is more than enough to reclaim her lost family. Their ghosts rise with a lyrical energy that is second to none.
There is Grandma Sketty with her curious and wonderful nursery-rhyme months:
Ocopontober and November
and fifty more if you care to mention 'em.
And there is William Watkins, the author's grandfather, who greets his seventh baby with the words: 'Good God...it's a little goblin.' And there's Nancy and Gwenny, the poet's mother and aunt, who play at being Mrs Jones and Mrs Davis:
Gawdle-mighty look at the time –
not a child washed nor a po emptied.
Imagery of the menacing sea ebbs and flows in the sequence, claiming brother Willie for ever and lurking at the edge of gentle Sketty Sands. Memory itself is a fishing catch, 'each told tale glinting like herring scales' and the poems are the author's 'flotsam', saved from the waves.
There is both comedy and tragedy here. 'The Tale my Uncle told me' is a magnificently comic monologue – the story of 'a ancestor' who won a swearing match. The verse rings with his glorious obscenities:
Ach y fi
Was nothing to him. Flaming buggers of hell
he called them, blisters on the bum of God,
the Devil's emeroids; said they hadn't the wit
to piss downwind...
But behind all the poems the sense of loss surges and swells. The tender lyric that introduces William James' love for Millie is touched with the pathos of knowing that the 'dignity of his love' will founder two poems later. He dies 'too far out in the Bristol Channel' for his sister's arms 'to reach and haul him in.' Grandma Sketty, for all her energy, fades away, her hair falling out in handfuls. Sister Marjorie dies as a baby. By the end of the sequence, all 'the sisters' voices' have dwindled and 'gone home for good', the author's mother's death exiling her 'from that land' where such memories were born.
The beauty and plangency of these lovely poems is not only drawn from a sense of personal loss – lost family, lost language, lost inheritance. It's in the music of the words. Joanna Boulter has an unerring and enchanting sense of line, rhythm and form. The melody in these poems is expert and heart-felt. Buy it and give it to your children. They will give it to their children. It is unforgettable.
Helena Nelson - Second Light Newsletter December 2001