Poetry can be deceptive. It is at its best when it is concise, when it portrays something with minimal words and much beauty. Sometimes a poem can seem, on initial reading, to be simple, to have limited substance. It’s only on re-reading it or letting it settle in the mind that you realise that what appeared to have little complexity is, in fact, complex and examining several facets of what you took it to be about. Robert Graves had a long relationship with the poet Laura Riding. She encouraged him to simplify his poetry, to strip it of artifice. As a result, his poetry has am illusory simplicity so often a poem appears to have limited content. It is only on reconsideration or over time that the intricacy and depth of meaning becomes apparent, and you are astonished at how much the work contains. ‘Flying Crooked’ appears to be little more than a description of a butterfly but reveals itself to be a profound observation on the meaning of life and how it should be lived. This is talent. The simplicity is the product of craft, meticulous work by the poet to make the complex understood which often appears to easy but is actually rare. Reading the collection of fifty-four poems published by Dave Lewis earlier this year, I am struck by how his poems, like Graves, appear simple but are the product of talent and craft and have subtlety, complexity and depth.
Dave Lewis is a Welsh photographer, writer and poet who founded the annual International Welsh Poetry Competition, the International Poetry Book Awards and runs the Indie publishing house Publish and Print. ‘Mixed Messages’, his latest collection, is organised in three sections.
The first section, ‘Mixed Messages’, takes on tough topics such as domestic violence, racism, drug addiction, often in the setting of Wales. Each is written from the perspective of and told by its character. These are confident mature poems presenting us with things other poets would shy away from. He has the ability to enter the life and challenges of others with clarity and raw empathy. The opening poem, Domestic Bliss, is a woman subject to domestic violence who has been raped by her partner. It is more powerful because of the terse, matter of fact telling as she prepares dinner after the assault. A later poem ‘Discoloured’ returns to the topic with the same economic descriptive style and with some wonderful poetic imagery.
A swaddling of ecstasy at soft dawn,
Love-warm. Damp. Coddled.
I awoke to find my LPs in pieces-
jagged vinyl strewn like night puddles
on the moonscape of the carpet.
An angry expose of racism in Cardiff is not afraid to tackle a darker side of Wales today – “this multicultural capital / with prejudice on every street corner”. As with all good poetry, Dave takes us inside the experiences of others. These are political poems in the best sense of the descriptor, they do not pontificate but enable us to understand and feel what it is like to be another person as with these lines from ‘Arthur’
Dad said he was broken but I saw a warrior
who’d seen the wind. I think he carried on
because that’s what the dead told him to do.
He is not afraid to take on the hypocrisy of white middle class socialists. ‘Janus’ (we are reminded in notes at the end of the poem that Janus was the two-faced Roman god) is based on once left-wing friends who now occupy comfortable, liberal professions
I sometimes catch a glimpse
of them eating and drinking in designer rags,
still clinging to those University lies
‘Every room is another room’ is a deeply moving account of loss from the perspective of a grieving wife. ‘Independent Living’ is an account of the life of a homeless busker. ‘Gosia’ (about Joseph Mengele the so-called Nazi ‘Angel of Death’) tells of the holocaust. ‘Pandemic’ uses the vehicle of our recent challenges to think about so many others we have faced and failed to manage with acerbic humour.
Well as the old saying goes:
‘You can’t educate pork.’
So listen long pig and listen good
‘Sort it out or it’s dinosaur time for you.’
If Dave can take us into the lives of others, the opening poem in the second section, ‘Savage Paradise’, takes us further by entering the experience of a lion being hunted, reminding me of the poems of Joanna Lilley. Dave plumbs his experiences of Africa so effectively in these evocative poems, you can feel the heat and smell the elephant dung.
The final section, ‘Frogs Calling’ moves to a gentler category with poems reflecting love and the natural beauty of our homeland. ‘Ten Thousand Footsteps’, an evocative poem of the Welsh landscape, contains word-use and images that remind me of Dylan Thomas (you don’t get to write that too often)! Lines like
Until the church of the sun
beckons worship for precious seconds
as your red hair ballets
colour across a cold blue sky
There is similar wordplay in a poem about the Avon Taf such as ‘Dawn mist witches over heron’s feet’ and ‘until the sun lights a trout trail’
Several poems such as ‘Degrees or Separation’ examine the impact of time, of love and lost love,
I'm guessing you know what I want. It's what we all wish for. A second chance at living, at watching the clouds and swallowing the red pill.
and the routine sadness’s that we face as life passes
when a phone call to Africa
Made an almost satisfied man cry alone.
I often think how life
is so goddam wonderful
but it don’t last long.
The stature of these poems may be gauged by the fact that among the reviews on the cover is one from Brian Patten. Dave Lewis is a poet of Wales, and one the Cymru can be proud of. His work has the courage, power and honesty too many poets today lack. It is poignant, and achieves that illusion the best poets achieve, to appear simple and straightforward whilst being the complex and insightful product of true craft. The range of his topics is broad but the driver behind them is empathy and humanity. He writes from this perspective, not from ego or from the need to be saying something self-aggrandising and he writes with a meticulous simplicity and lack of pretension.
Mixed Messages can be purchased from Amazon in paperback or Kindle
and from goodreads.com
©Josh Brown 2021