Salt Modern Voices 2011,    £6.50Sphinx seven and a half striper

Reviewed by Hilary Menos, Emma Lee and Nick Asbury


Hilary Menos:
Meryl Pugh sets out her stall with her first poem 'The Charcoal Bridle', where the process of writing poetry is likened to the process of breaking in horses. She will "learn to yield, learn to resist,/ to trust the headstall, bit and rein/ for this uncertain footing" in order to "speak the bridled language". I assume this is about form, about marshalling wildness into something more approachable, more malleable, more understandable. It's a worthy aim.

She succeeds in this best, to my mind, when she has a subject to consider other than herself. I particularly enjoyed her poems inspired by museums. 'Ecorchée' is set in the Musée de l'Ecole Vétérinaire de Maisons-Alfort; 'The Nerve Table' is set in the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons; and 'The Anatomical Waxes' is set in La Specola, the Museum of Zoology and Natural History in Florence. In 'The Anatomical Waxes', the wax model "fingers her braid, her duodenum/ raised to her breasts like a petticoat." 'The Nerve Table' celebrates Giovanni Leoni d'Este, a dissector who prepared bodies for anatomy lectures at the University of Padua in the 17th century. Pugh's poem describes how he

unhooked each nerve-end, lifted the threads
free of bone and organ, cleared the oak boards
of everything else, spread out the lacewing suits,
washed and left them to dry, then varnished them.

These poems seem to me to be good, approaching the challenge of what it is to be human, Pugh's "peeled monkey", with subtlety and finesse.

Best of the rest, for me, is 'Londinia', a paean to the city, where Pugh demonstrates a lightness of touch, complete mastery of tone, and an extraordinary imagination. She makes the city into a woman who has "spread out her skirts—the inner, the outer—/ and let them grow heavy with detail". Pugh asks what will happen when Londinia rises:

Enumerate now each strand in the lacy hem:
A2, A12, A1(M)

I'm not so convinced by the poems about Pugh's younger self, such as 'Training Bra' or 'It's All Good Stuff!', or poems which address her relationship with Wales, where she was born, and the much-rehearsed business of feeling out of place. There are also a few very abstract poems which I have puzzled over for a while but still can't find a way into, though there is one—'Spoor'—which ends the collection and which I think Pugh does pull off rather beautifully. A traveller follows a string

till she comes to the place she began
and the neck of her own red jumper's a noose
with the end of the rope in her hand.



Emma Lee:
These poems question what makes us human and use stories to narrate experience. ‘The Nerve Table’ is about an exhibit from Hunterian Museum, London:

unhooked each nerve-end, lifted the threads
free of bone and organ, cleared the oak boards
of everything else, spread out the lacewing suits,
washed and left them to dry, then varnished them.

If I could extricate my nerves like that,

make safe those messages from surface to core,
what would I do? Not flinch? Lie down with you?

The final questions widen the poem from a mere description of the exhibit. But the questions aren’t just general questions, they interlink and build a picture of the nerves of meeting someone you hope feels towards you as you do towards them. The poem ends on the question, leaving readers to think and decide, or perhaps reflect on their own situation.


‘The Unicorn (Part 1)’ explores differences in identity, whether you define yourself by the country you were born in, or the country you adopt. The poet’s parents met while her mother was working in a radio control tower and her father worked in the hangar. Her Welsh-born mother doesn’t speak Welsh and neither does her English-born father, but the family try Welsh words: dim parico—no parking, ach y fi—an exclamation of disgust, bore da—hello, croeso—welcome:

Dim Parico. You can’t keep crossing over,
you have to choose: one side or the other.
Or they choose you. You’re English (you’re not Welsh,
you’ve got a weird name)
and you sound posh.
When you ask me, Where do you come from?
how do I answer? How does anyone?
All of us sound different on my street.
In each of us, so many of these crossings meet.
Say ach y fi. Say bore da. Say croeso.
The unicorn behind me stops to drink
unnoticed by the rowers at Hollow Pond,
unseen by the plane that turns to join the stack
circling above the city, waiting to land.

Similarly, ‘Interloper’, explores identity through class and how the narrator feels she might slip up, say something incorrectly and give away that she’s not of the class she pretends to be:

She has learnt about dinner (not tea) and lunch (not dinner),
where supper fits in and how to say hors d’oeuvres
but she is the pea, careful in new clothes,
under the hundred mattresses.

In Hans Andersen’s tale, the three peas, placed under twenty mattresses, tested the sensitivity of the “real princess”. Here the narrator identifies with the pea, not the princess, and there are five times as many mattresses:  it is as if she is under great pressure, testing her ability to pass for someone she’s not.

Meryl Pugh takes familiar situations but asks questions to make readers see those situations in a new light. Her poetic forms restrain, shape emotion into honed details, yet leave plenty of space for the reader to interpret the poem.

Nick Asbury:
With their perfect-bound format and ‘proper’ spines, titles from the Salt Modern Voices series feel closer to books than pamphlets: a difference reflected in the price, which is higher than you would expect. But the quality of the writing is also high. This debut collection by Meryl Pugh is so closely crafted and thematically dense that it takes as much time to absorb as many full-length books.

The penultimate poem ‘From the Spare Room Again’ is a representative example. A sonnet in gently rhyming couplets, it is rooted in a recognisable everyday situation—the speaker sleeping in a spare room following a row of some sort—but quickly transports you to a dense and knotty metaphorical world:

our turning forms
that face each other through the wall, become
the Dreadnought and Leviathan. The waking one
extends a tentacle of breath to find
the sleeper’s towline spooling out and catches, winds
around the grappling hook. So, both can lift
the steadfast metal vessel, stop the monster’s drift.

As a reader, there’s a certain exhilaration in being carried along by these extended metaphors, which take so many twist and turns you almost forget where you started. But the meandering lines of thought take place within tightly controlled poetic lines. I was particularly taken with the poet’s facility for half-rhyme and unobtrusive full rhyme, particularly in the terza rima stanzas of ‘The Singing Door’, and the swaying couplets of ‘The Observations’, where the alternating ‘I’ and ‘O’ sounds mimic the tide coming in and out:

Out to sea, a freighter sinks
a much smaller boat

or avoids an accident until

a storm gets them both.

I summon these disasters at will.

The waves grow

to their fullest height, then on the brink

seem to let go,

making the shingle hiss and clink,

turning the stones.

This tension between formal control and imaginative freedom is captured in the opening (title) poem. ‘The Charcoal Bridle’ reads as a poetic manifesto of sorts, concluding:

I will put on the charcoal bridle
learn to yield, learn to resist

to trust the headstall, bit and rein

for this uncertain footing.

I will come down off the ridge

and I will speak the bridled language.

There’s a tonal issue here and in a few other poems, where (to this reader at least) a note of portentousness creeps in. The extended metaphors and allegorical subtext can start to feel too heavily signposted. But this is a risk the poet generally avoids and there are plenty of lighter notes, including a mock-heroic prose address to a Roman cauliflower (‘Romanesco’), moving but unsentimental poems to the poet’s grandmothers, and a joyful poem announcing the arrival of a newborn girl (‘Eden’). It would take a longer review than this to unravel the themes of nature, gender, language and memory that run through this collection, but it’s worth taking the time to explore yourself.