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Menna Elfyn Perfect BlemishPerfect Blemish

Review by Mike Clement

The bilingual edition of Menna Elfyn’s new book, Perfect Blemish Perffaith Nam, is a collection of contemplative, stimulating, visual and thought provoking international poetry which includes work from Cell Angel (1996) and Blind Man’s Kiss / Cusan Dyn Dall (2001).

In the poetry you hear the voice of a Matronae, filled with the sympathetic strength of female humanity. It is deeply reflective, poignant, and empathetic of the dispossessed.  In Ricepaper, dealing with the aftermath of Vietnam, the fragility of a diminishing culture and the expression of the dying fragments of its understanding is dependant on those more educated, but less eloquent to convey its totality: “the price of her eloquence turning to spittle on the interpreters tongue.”

The work often confronts mortality. Nights Thieves, a poem dealing with dementia: “a hedge, in the bed somewhere, the snatcher-in-chief is biding his time”. Much of the work deals
with emphemerality, the enigma of the rights of passage of womanhood, mankind’s inequality and inhumanity.

Nunnery, written whilst the poet was incarcerated in 1993 for refusal to pay a fine as part of a non violent campaign, reflects the escapism of religious solace, and the lack of its reward:

We are anchorites. After supper
we turn to contemplation. We make fleshless
bundles. Like it or not we're spiritual

bearing our little crosses under our pillows,
stubborn in sacrifice, waiting for wings.

The poet questions her faith in A God problem where she contemplates on the vanity of hair: “ Because of my crown I came to doubt the word.”

In Killing time with death, a poem resulting from a visit to the Mutter Museum, Philadelphia, where a collection of instruments used to commit suicide are housed, she asks: “is there survival in search of the cross.”  The work regularly questions the impotence of belief in the intervention of a cruel god in the events of man.  In work again arising from contemplation on hair, God’s evil and vindictive nature is expressed in the poem Hairdresser:

Because of the hair-splitting human gripe about beauty
he gave his son a satirical crown of thorns
for man's ingratitude, planted stubble and hedge
on his chin, in his nose, in his ears, and let him
grow balder as long as he lived for his jealous greed for hair,

just a rim, just enough to go around
the edge of his hairless skull
to remind him of the first fool
who brought down snake-spit on his head.

In Perfect Blemish/ Perfect Nan, deeper, darker levels of the soul are exposed. In Autumn in Druskininkai, Lithuania, a poem filled with the nervous uncertainty born from relief and hope at the fall of the wall, you sense a medieval gothic scene akin to a Bram Stoker novel, “There is no need now, to shut the curtain.”

There are a number of wonderful penetrating flights of pulsing visual fantasy, laced with coastline saltiness, humour and wit as in Sardines, and Whales:

How do you milk 'whales'?

Imagine the scene -
whales and a calm sea.
Their ocean-going majesty,
the sweet wrinkle of waves on their backs.
And imagine again,
their golden mantle of oil
overflowing and dripping like milk.
Imagine a hem
of cream at the water's edge,
and the just-milked whale.

Also the darker, Sea questionnaire: “ Does the maram grass when it is droopy feel more loopy when it feels the children’s hands buried in the sand dunes”.

The work celebrates, in a very non-parochial way, the descriptive depth of the Welsh language when addressing universal concepts and contemporary international affairs. It draws on a font of culture and events as far back as the 6th century when responding to the bizarreness of daily revelations. The work is skilful, vibrant, brimming with life force and energy.

The highly sympathetic translations offer not only a key of accessibility to the non Welsh speaker, they also demonstrate the specific and impersonal nature of the English words, opposed to the more stratified, encompassing, and personal nature of Welsh words.

Possibly one of the best books of contemporary poetry there is, and has to be a must have for any reader of poetry. It is certainly one that you will read and re-read to unearth limitless gems of discovery.

Menna Elfyn Perfect Blemish/Perffaith Nam: New and Selected Poems 1995-1997/Dau Ddetholiad a Cherddi Newydd 1995-2007 (Paperback) Bloodaxe Books £12

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