Review: Delirium by Robert Minhinnick
The Porthcawl-based poet, prose stylist and editor Robert Minhinnick has by now been writing at the top of his game for such a long time that it’s as if the settings on his quality control mechanism have jammed on “high.”
He has won the Wales Book of the Year not once, not twice but three times and his poetry has been lauded in many quarters including being shortlisted for the T.S.Eliot prize.
His latest offering is no exception when it comes to setting a standard – a series of bright, burnished pieces of short prose which sparkle with all the intent and energy that might characterise a writer just starting out.
The language is often spot on. Sunflower seeds are ‘those white triangles like babies’ teeth,’ a sky is ‘thunderlit,’ ‘the ju-ju of jays leave me scanning empty air. Their syllables are scorn…’while the planet Mars is simply ‘red as a pheasant’s eye.’
The pieces range widely, both geographically and in terms of subject, from a Stereophonics gig in Sydney on a night of fruit bats cruising over the stage and when ‘the sky turns the colour of oxy acetylene’ through encounters with destitute desert bedouins and their children to fond memories of his parents.
The last of these owes much to a trove of diaries kept by his father in 1945, chronicling his time in Burma as the Second World War drew to a close, with recollections of five foot cobras and kraits and the unsettled days following the atomic detonation at Hiroshima.
The writer also visits his mother in a care home, feeding her porridge and telling her stories to counter the loneliness imposed by lockdown rules.
Celebrant of nature
Minhinnick loves the dune systems near his home and has been a celebrant of the nature found there and the history – including an old nunnery – buried underneath the shifting sand in many a poem and in novels such as Nia and Sea Holly.
They remain a constant backdrop to many of these pieces, with the dune-system’s seasonal lakes and their flowering bursts of summer orchids, not to mention migrating wheatears, the ‘line on the face like a lightning bolt. Kind of David Bowie cosmetic stripe…’
There’s an airy freshness to the passages of nature writing, not least in the writer’s mathematical musings about shorebirds as he tries to figure out the square root of sanderlings.
In a simply lovely description of deer blending in with their surroundings as a storm gathers, changing the light:
The does were chewing the blackthorn bark and were not expecting me, another ghost, but downwind, on the first morning in May. Three of them, and when they turned together those deer were spotted like vipers, or striped, I suppose, in perfect camouflage.
Yes, hidden, the deer. Out of hiding then vanishing into the blackthorn’s dirty ivory, yellowed in this latest hurricane they’re calling Storm Hannah.
But my favourite of these brisk and vivid nature illlustrations is to be found in a piece called, appropriately enough ‘Snipe, Vanishing’ which gives us ‘the stuttering song from the marsh goat, its zigzaggery over the dune slack’ and the idea that it’s ‘already hard to believe it was ever here. Snipe are more difficult to follow than a knight on a chessboard.’
The central section of the book, ‘Billionaires’ Shortbread’ is named after one of the many types of ice-cream in Porthcawl and is a work-in-progress, maybe a novel in the making, which offers us perpectives on the lives of characters such as Ffresni and Cai which interconnect and overlap.
It’s easy to imagine the evolution of a longer work based on them, part of the extended hymn in prose that Minhinnick is composing in his ongoing explorations of this otherwise undersung part of south Wales.
Minhinnick is a much-travelled writer and the concluding section of the book – dedicated to Jan Morris – gathers together some atmospheric reportage from the parched borderlands of Israel and Jordan and seeing springtime in Saskatechewan, when the snow is ‘like lines of barbed wire.’
He visits Iraq during wartime, views a long cat in its enclosure in the Bronx Zoo and the tells of the disputed territory of the Golan Heights where a fellow poet, Marwhan Makhoul wrote the ‘clouds are more fortunate than exiles.’
These tight prose pieces may seem like fragments, offcuts of a larger whole but then they settle into place like a well-thought out lapidary, reminding us of the way in which Minhinnick compares his dad’s ability to work stone with those of a poet as he, in turn, creates cynghanedd with words as his building blocks.
Asking who his father’s walls were for, he answers… ‘Other builders, of course, those few privy to the language with an instinct for stones, builders who might scan and then reread and maybe memorise his wall and understand its baffling syntax, the harmonies they heard within his craft.’
Which might not be a bad way to summarise the way in which Delirium works – small, beautiful gem-like fragments adding up to a satisfying, lapidary whole.
Delirium by Robert Minhinnick is published by Seren.
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