“The Houses Along the Wall” Karen Hayes (Holland Park Press) – poetry review

2018 11 21 Karen Hayes The Houses Along the Wall book cover“The Houses Along the Wall” is a collection of poems inspired by a row of houses along the coast in Parrog in Pembrokeshire where pieces of china and pottery frequently wash up on a nearby beach. These poems are acts of preservation: charting the landscape and people, and recording overheard conversations and local stories associated with the houses. They also imagine past inhabitants and what their lives might have been based on the fragments of crockery and gathered stories. Each poem is subtitled by the name of the house that inspired the poem. Some names are Welsh, some English.

The early poems loosely focus on a family’s beginning, marriage before the children arrive. In “In His Cups”, house name Morwellan,

“His shilling, like ice in his palm, he touches
The rim of the collection bowl
Where the wood is warm from the heel
Of her hand and at the communion
Tastes where her lips have been.
And he knows how she gropes for the kneeler
Blindly with thumb and forefinger
And how she pulls
The resistant tapestry
Out of its hiding place.

She emerges from yew-tree dark
With the glamour of rain in her hair,
Her arm through his. Her smile an intoxication
To quench his thirst for ever,
And exacts her own promise in return.
He never took a drop from the day
She agreed to his proposal.”

The reference to shilling dates the poem to a time when divorce was stigmatised so the unnamed she is taking a huge gamble in agreeing to his proposal. The poem changes tone from the tender romanticism of touching the things she had touched to the more business-like transaction of exchanging promises where the language from the extract of the second quoted stanza becomes flatter and factual. The image of her groping for the cushion used to knee to pray suggests she’s seen something in him that he’s not yet ready to acknowledge and offers a note of hope for the marriage.

Karen Hayes visited Parrog as an English tourist in her childhood and explores other tourists in “The Belgians”, house name Ocean House, which starts “The Belgians came on the day of the regatta” and ends,

“Those three years, measured in regattas,
When the Belgians lived at Ocean House,
Marked an entente between us and next door.
On the last Sunday the eldest brothers won the double skulls
Then joined the fusiliers on Monday morning.
Their engraved cup still sits on our mantle-piece
With regimental medals from Palestine.
They spoke Welsh better than most boys in the village
And understood that we were the English here,
And therefore also foreign.
Amongst the list of Evanses and Reeses
Their Belgian name stands out.”

I think “skulls” should be “sculls” so the cup is from a rowing competition because of the repetition of “regattas” both to mark the Belgians’ arrival and the span of time lived at the house. The poem explores the extra effort the foreigners made to fit in, “They spoke Welsh better than most boys in the village” and the connection between them and the English tourists. Other poems explore the blessing and curse of tourism: that it brings a much needed boost to the local economy but also that holiday homes prevent people born in Parrog buying a house there.

One of the last poems looks at the oldest house, “The Runt of the Litter”, house name Trenydd, where the contradiction of “eldest” and “runt” is dealt with in the opening stanza, “Little Trenydd, eldest of the brood,/ But the runt of the litter of houses.” The poem continues,

“Little Trenydd, the first built,
Squats like a baby
Counting its mothers buttons from a tin,
Cross-legged on the strand.
Soon the other houses grown around it,
Those leggy younger siblings,
Vying for height and confidence, and
Competing architectural demands.”

And ends “And, an old man now, with the sun in his eyes/ Little Trenydd dozes on the wall.”

It’s the first poem to give one of the houses a persona. The others focus on the residents and visitors, the people who stayed relatively briefly in the houses. One poem imagines the missing estate agent Suzy Lamplugh playing hide and seek with children in one of the houses, giving the collection a contemporary edge. There’s much to savour here and the aim of preserving the character and houses is achieved.

“The Houses Along the Wall” is available from Holland Park Press

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