Jonathan Edwards introduces Power Play, Mair De-Gare Pitt's new collection of poems, with images by Jill Powell.
What is politics? When I was a younger person, growing up in the South Wales Valleys in the late 1980s, a far-off and mythical land where cornflakes were splashed not with milk but rather with stories of the Miners’ Strike, where usually sober, chapelgoing ladies saw Margaret Thatcher on the television and hissed at her like cats, where the songs of the Manic Street Preachers boomed through bedroom windows into terraced streets, and nobody knew what they were saying, and liked it—when I was a younger person, I thought I knew exactly what politics was. It was people shouting at each other.
At the age of fourteen or so, my political career reached its peak, when I met Lord David Sutch, lead singer of the Monster Raving Loony Party, in a local pub. Here, I felt, was the future. My house, conveniently located next to a polling station, offered the perfect site for campaigning on his behalf. My mother would not allow his leaflets in the living room window, and I was banned from actively picketing in the street so, come election day, I plastered my bedroom window with his posters, and sat there on the windowsill, shouting down at people on their way to vote, ‘Look up here!’ Some of them did. Lord David Sutch did not retain his deposit.
Now I am older and less wise, the importance of politics is much clearer, and it’s taken me a good old while to grasp what was clear to others from the start. Politics isn’t people shouting at each other. It is people. The drowning of Capel Celyn in the 1960s to provide a reservoir for Liverpool, for example, was a significant political event, which changed the relationship between Wales and England and, some have argued, paved the way for devolution. But how much more important does that event seem when one sees photos of the people who lived in Capel Celyn—the pensioners, the children, their faces, their clothes—sitting on a bus on its way to Liverpool, to campaign to save their village. They raise their cups of tea and look through the camera lens at us from the years they’re in, with all the reality of their experience etched into their faces. It is this connection, this empathy, which matters.
This is among the reasons why I adore the poems of Mair De-Gare Pitt. From its very first poem, its very first line, this collection focuses on the human and, through its brilliant lyricism, elevates the experiences it describes into something like beauty. The collection understands that the real way to political change is by moving people, by getting hold of their hearts, by writing memorably, and the poems do this again and again. Was there ever a more arresting opening line to a collection of poems than ‘Today I am wearing a child’s afternoon’?
This collection’s three sections—‘Children,’ ‘Women’ and ‘Society’ —elegantly organise these poems’ concerns. Blake, who knew a thing or two about making political points because of the reality of children’s experience, presides over the poems of the first section as a sort of guardian presence. I was very taken by the moving focus in this section on difficulties of communication in poems such as ‘A Child Tries to Read Aloud in Class’ and ‘Elective Mute.’ These are highly empathetic pieces, and I was also struck by the irony of this experience being explored by a writer who communicates so beautifully—though difficulty and great success in communication are of course great companions. ‘Black to Grey’ is a poem which perfectly encapsulates how the South Wales Valleys have changed over a generation. Its last, ringing image speaks so eloquently for an experience which is being lived now on the streets of Newport and Newtown, Abersychan and Abertridwr.
The second section offers, arguably, even more powerful poems. ‘The New Suit Man’ takes a step towards the public poetry of writers like Auden and Betjeman, but at the heart of this section is a collection of unforgettable character portraits, documenting all sorts of female experiences. The poems range from the troubles of ‘Our Lady of the Rags’ and a ‘Woman Sleeping Rough at Cardiff Castle’—a poem with an astonishing ending—to an old lady answering the phone, and astute and powerful depictions of motherhood in ‘Respect’ and ‘Fruit-Picking at Berryhill Farm.’
In ‘Society,’ the collection opens out to explore a range of subjects. ‘A Minister of Health’ is a powerful poem of protest which reminded me of some of the political writing of Carol Ann Duffy, while ‘Voices from the Great Flood’ is a fabulously ambitious, multi-voiced poem. The collection concludes with a heartbreaking monologue about Grenfell which again shows this poet’s understanding of the importance of putting people front and centre.
This collection is wonderfully illustrated by Jill Powell, the images and poems now endorsing each other, now opening each other up to new possibilities. It’s a great thing to see a publisher putting together a sequence now of beautifully- written, wonderfully produced pamphlets, which seem to be doing something important and different in British poetry.
As for you, reader, mysterious or fedora’d ghost who may or may not be there, though I’m shouting this at you now, as if you’re the magnolia or wallpapered wall of this room I’m writing in— I hope you’ll love these poems as much as I do, and join with me in hoping that there will be many more of these poems for us to read, from a writer who is so refined, her voice so much her own, her poems so special, her concerns so significant.
I’d say this collection is important because it’s political. But I’ll say more. It’s important if you’re human.
Power Play is available for purchase here.