Aunts Come Armed with Welsh Cakes, Thirza Clout
Smith/Doorstop Books, 2019 £7.50
A spoonful of sugar
In the vivid poem ‘All Souls’ Night’, Thirza Clout’s deceased parents pay a nocturnal visit: ‘They just called / to kiss me and to give me words of love / words I’d never heard in all the years before.’
But even in dreams there is no happy ending: ‘I longed to welcome them again. The cakes / went mouldy in the tin, the kettle cold.’ This is a collection that casts an unsentimental eye on a working-class childhood, where even visiting aunts come ‘armed’ with Welsh Cakes.
Chosen by Carol Ann Duffy as her Laureate’s Choice, the poems offer an unveiling of family secrets as well as an acknowledgement of the hardships endured by female relatives.
In ‘Breech’, the poet repeats a well-worn version of her own birth, including the ‘punchline’ that she was ‘Contrary from the start’. When her mother’s death is described in the arresting opening couplet of ‘A Present’ as ‘The last gift my mother gave me’, it comes as no surprise.
However, there are culinary moments to be cherished. I was particularly moved by the bitter-sweet tone of ‘Treat’, in which ‘Dad’ makes a sugar sandwich:
[ ... ] he showered down so much love
it snowed across the cloth.
I licked my first finger, pressed down
to stick grains, licked again.
In our house love came granulated
never enough to be wasted.
In ‘Thirza’, the poet’s aunt (‘a fierce woman whose mouth / sparked hot as Blaenavon furnaces’) reveals a softer side through the art of baking:
Aunty Thirza baked the best Welsh cakes I’ll ever eat,
the secret was lard, she said butter was for lah-di-dahs.
Ironically, perhaps, despite food being dished up as a substitute for love in childhood, the poet in later life bequeaths her own loved one ‘pink fir apples, waxy charlottes / rainbow chard and beautiful runner beans’.
With its sprinklings of bathos and relatable story-telling, I found this a curiously enjoyable collection.