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Wales Book of the Year shortlist review: In Orbit by Glyn Edwards

29 Jun 2024 7 minute read
In Orbit by Glyn Edwards is published by Seren

Tori Chamberlain

Encased in a nondescript jiffy bag, In Orbit came crashing through my letterbox like a falling star, vibrant in its intensity and its lyrical promise of hope.

In Orbit is a visceral cluster of love, loss, and grief, in varying manifestations, represented by a diverse range of poetic forms from traditional stanzas to prose poems, and shaped poems of birds, and hands, and circuits.

All these facets demonstrate, even at first reading, that this is also a collection exploring nature as a salve: the vastness of dark night, the sempiternal sky, the constellations of lonely stars, the solace of the moon, and planets as an agency for different breeds of love and grief.

Yet in all cases the often-unappreciated emotion of bittersweetness is a constant presence (if we allow it entry) in life’s most trying of times, where a “sole celestial body” becomes “oneself reflected back”, and “how the moon alone has its history written across its face.” How beautiful yet sad these phrases are.

Scintillating

Now I love to read poetry, and I enjoy writing it too, most commonly about my own experience of love, loss and the ensuing grief, so this scintillating collection felt like a personal masterclass. And Glyn Edwards, a brilliant teacher in his day job and former winner of Wales Teacher of the Year Award, drew inspiration for this, his second collection, from his own childhood teacher, or rather, an “amalgamation of teachers” he has admired.

Learning and education is most certainly a vital feature of this work, and valued intrinsically by Edwards as he pays homage to the role all educators play in inspiring students: a teacher that tells stories of toads being released back to the coast night after night from the boot of his car, a class trip to the sunken village of Tryweryn where the church spire is “lifting its head”, the camping trip to gaze at stars that was denied by parents until the very last moment.

Memory upon memory, like a collection of photographs, where teachers inspired, instilled, and left indelible marks.

Inner emotions

Those of us who read and write poetry do so for varying reasons. For me, it is to connect with, and to process, inner emotions, and to turn them into something I hope is worthwhile. Energy needs to travel somewhere, and why not into art? For what is art if it’s not life? Edwards’s transformation of grief is startling in these pages.

He creates light out of darkness at every turn with seamless panache. I know something has reached my emotional centre when I feel it deep in my chest. In the poem “Daylight Saving”, he says, “There is no one near me this morning to half the solitude.

Nobody to dilute the night.” What meaning this has to someone who knows that kind of desolation.

Despite the all-encompassing topic of death, these are poems that demonstrate life at its fullest and most rewarding. This comes through an expressive vision to create a work that is enigmatic with a simplicity that refuses to be watered down from its diverse and reasoned core.

The medley of which elicits an emotional resonance that is not a dissimilar to an experience of perhaps a work of art like a Rothko painting towering above its onlooker, engulfing emotions with visual modulations of light, colour and contrasts, the “platinum glare” of Venus through a telescope as we read in a circle around the page, or my personal favourite: the poem “nocturnal” where the narrative voice writes “white on black” and curls up within it “the way a fox does days”.

To me, poems are most successful when they take up good space upon the white page. It is here that we can use all aspects of our senses to appreciate their entire being-ness.

Grief

At first, I wondered whether a collection that addresses the loss of a beloved teacher, albeit a fictional amalgamation, would quite reach my own emotional experience of grief. But I was misguided in this assumption. Of course, while grief is a deeply personal experience, it is also a universal one.

Every human must endure it, and the balance Edwards creates in his various poetic forms, and the stark delicacy within, allowed me to enter the scope of each poem and feel its core in all nuances.

This universal teacher, the addressee, starts out very specific in Part 1 as we are thrown into teenage years. Here we are not only grieving the loss of a beloved teacher but exploring the impact of shame upon boys and men through lack of freedom to explore deeper emotions, such as love and sadness. But then, into Part 2, broadening out to the present day, and Part 3, the future.

Throughout, there is a shaft of light for everyone to reach out and grasp hold of, to come under the moon rays as it casts its beam across the landscape of art and life, and life and art — the purest and most honest experience of grief we can encounter.

Edwards gives us the tools (his poems) to do this. Such broad and ambitious brush strokes that are also so personal, is a difficult equilibrium to create, but when it’s accomplished well, as within this collection, then this is surely a work of not only a great talent but also an example of the author’s respectful dedication to his craft.

Subtleties

As we circle, in orbit, through the subtleties of grief, I am struck by the use of abstractions. In “River” and “just as blood” we’re confronted with “truth” and “time” and “seasons”, but it is the last stanza of “River” that holds the sucker-punch:

a poem is river is mirror

held to your own mouth

to check you’re still breathing

— an absolute specificity to concretise the earlier abstractions. There is always a balance to be struck to ground the abstract, even if by solidifying the phrase in a visual structure upon the page, or by sound and rhythm; the poet cannot risk his words becoming hazy.

And there is, in truth, a danger of this in a couple of Edwards’s poems. But in my humble opinion, there is a place in poetry for these bigger abstractions, and I take heart from Edwards not shying away.

More kudos from me for going against the grain, and I hope from the Wales Book of the Year panel too!

And to conclude, I must go back to the beginning of this collection in the poem “elegy” and the importance Edwards places on facing one’s grief without turning away: “in dark is dark” and “in grief is grief”.

Art and indeed poetry insist we do this because how else can we partake in the shared experience Edwards expresses? Every poem or “lonely star” within the constellation unveils a truth about grief that we cannot dull or avoid: “night is night” after all.

If we try to suppress or turn away, not only will this result in lives not fully lived and/or an emotional disconnect leading to shame and other toxic traits, but will also mean that we cannot immerse ourselves in the sublimity of art and poetry, which urges us to face these truths always.

What kind of world would we have without such expression as that which we find in such collections as In Orbit? A dark, starless night, that’s what — an “empty space” in a world devoid of illumination and hope. It’s not a world I want to inhabit.

In Orbit is published by Seren and is available from all good bookshops.


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DotiauSyml
DotiauSyml
12 days ago

Daliwch ati i gyhoeddi adolygiadau ac ati NC, ‘dyw nhw ddim yn cael lawyer o sylwadau ond dan ni’n eu gwerthfawrogi!

Keep publishing reviews and the like NC, they don’t get many comments but we appreciate them!

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