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Review: Heartland – Penfro Anthology offers range and verve in the writing

11 Jan 2020 5 minute read
Background picture by Nigel Swales (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Jon Gower

Literary festivals leave all sorts of legacies and in the case of the Penfro festival, an annual event in the Pembrokeshire village of Rhosygilwen, it comes in the form of this bright and buoyant anthology.

Showcasing the winners of its prose and poetry competitions, it is, as one of the judges, Niall Griffiths puts it ‘Proof that in bedrooms and kitchens and offices, etc., people are driven to write, to grapple with the fundamentals of being human, to express their unique selves.  It is an ancient and wonderful urge.  That it continues with such ingenuity and endeavour as evidenced in these pages is cause for celebration, admiration, and hope.’

Amen to that, especially as the “B” word, which so defined and despoiled 2019 is entirely absent.  Indeed, one of the most striking things about the collection is the seemingly complete lack of overt politics, be it that of climate change, international relations or the domestic ruptures of the UK.

Cardiff-based Richard Owain Roberts, who wrote the winning short story, has been compared with David Foster Wallace and Brett Easton Ellis though, for me, his tale, “Terrence Malick” is more reminiscent of Paul Auster, and the transmutation of that American author’s life into novels such as ‘The Book of Illusions.’ Roberts similarly plays fast and loose with fact and fiction with both verve and vim, blurring them both into what is clearly an autobiographical account of a visit to Serbia in the company of documentary film-maker Adam Christopher Smith (who, in real life, it seems, is making a film about this self-same trip.)

Shot through with references to popular culture, cocaine and Pringles, the story acts as a playful, edgy advert for Roberts’ forthcoming debut novel, Hello Friend We Missed You, out this Spring.

The winning poem. “Heartland” by Elizabeth Wilson Davies is a spare and touching meditation on grief and absence and shows, in judge Rhiannon Hooson’s words, ‘how powerful a poem can be without particular fanfare.’ The opening stanza has no trumpets but announces itself very clearly and visually:

Your parents moved to the chapel

three weeks apart

joining Titus    Waldo    Seth

                        Theophilus    Zorabel

                        hundreds of graves

stifled by wild daffodils

we didn’t often visit.

The rest of the poem deftly, and almost imperceptibly, carries a lot of weight, in lines of delicate balance and heft.

Some of the other poems also take us to sacred spaces, such as Angela Graham’s “After Iconoclasm” which details the visit of a TV crew to film the Jesse Tree Window at St. Dyfnog’s 13th century church in the Denbighshire village of Llanrhaeadr yng Nghinmeirch and the epiphanic effect of looking at the centuries’ old stained glass window which ‘spilled across the floor/ And yet was whole.’

Keeping with the theme, Kathy Miles’s “Angelology” finds the eponymous winged beings gathering on the hills where a farmer tries to ‘herd them, as he would/the wayward ewes, delved the tongues for magic…’  It’s a cinematic account of a visitation concertinaed into just nine lines.



In keeping with the current vogue for nature writing there are a couple of poems which vividly describe wildlife, being Rosalind Hudis’s “By the Wind Sailors” with its littoral phenomenon of curious little jellyfish, washed ashore, which arrive in a ‘blueness armada’ ‘their tiny triangle flaps seem torn-off cling/Film, still haunting…’ and Anthony Watts’ portrait of a vulture in “Lord of Carrion” ‘his cloak of feathers/ a collapsed umbrella/from which the extruded intestine of his neck/writhes up to support/the ravening head’ which might easily have been written by Ted Hughes had he ever sojourned to, say, the African savannah. This tight and terse poem proves, once again, what you can do with very few words arranged in the right order.

The anthology also offers us a splendid array of brief stories which range from the final hours of an Australian copper worker at the end of his tether in Kelly Van Nelson’s atmospheric ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ to Eluned Gramich’s exploration of Welsh myth in her delicious ‘Cream Horns’ which confirms this gifted young writer’s growing status.

All in all this anthology offers range and verve in the writing. The poetry judge Rhiannon Hooson conjured up a journey in her report where she said that ‘Those poems which achieved the most success seemed, in their way, an arrival.  They gave a sense that they had travelled a long way to reach the reader at the moment of being read.’

In that sense all of the poems and all of the stories in ‘Heartland’ are little pieces of travel writing, and in reading them our sense of the world is amplified, heightened and brought into sharp and vivid focus.

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