Carol Rumens, in the Guardian (24 March 2014) reviewed one short poem from this collection and used more words than I have for the whole book. The poem she picked, “Critique of Judgement”, is one of my own favourites because it is deceptively simple, using almost clichéd metaphors and similes but configuring them in a new way. For example, nature is seen as an artist; that is hardly novel but the description really focuses the reader’s mind’s eye on what the poet observes. Nature is ‘red in teeth and claws’, which, although obviously there to rhyme with “gauze” (an interesting rhyme in itself) sounds much more vicious in the plural than in the more usual singular. The title, “Critique of Judgement”, presumably refers to Kant’s book but McNeillie is writing about natural beauty “as though an artist has been busy with her pastels.” This poem is about mountains but most of the collection is about the sea and islands.
McNeillie was born in North Wales, in Old Colwyn, an area I know very well. He moved when he left school, first to work at the South Wales Guardian and then to Inis Mor, one of the Aran Islands, in Galway Bay, where he lived for two years in a house without electricity. An Aran Keening, his memoir of this time, was published in 2001but all his other books are poetry collections. Having subsequently studied at Oxford, he now publishes a poetry magazine and is Professor of English at Exeter University.
The most notable feature of Winter Moorings is surely their rhythm. Although all poetry is better read aloud, these poems really must be read aloud. “In the Wake of ‘the Seafarer’”, based on a tenth century manuscript apparently by Giraldus Cambrensis, a twelfth century writer and traveller found “caulking a coracle”, contains the split line (hemistich) often found in old sagas. It has the rhythm of a small boat rocking, “crashing by cliffs feet frozen”, which is also wonderfully alliterative and onomatopoeic. McNeillie’s Anglo-Saxon and Cynghanedd influences are strong indeed.
This is by no means the only example of alliteration: “eager to erase” and “in sure and certain” are from consecutive lines in the same poem (“Machars: War and Peace”). “The coast clamoured” is another example. The poet is also fond of repetition, to good effect as in “On the Rocks Road”:
What do I bring?
Nothing it knows.
What do I take?
Nothing it will miss.
Consider too “has no idea” and “he has no time to think” and “does not know” in “In the Wake of ‘the Seafarer’”.
Most of the poems are short (the shortest being only four lines long) but usually they have much to say, and are often very thought provoking. The very title of “The sea goes all the way round the island” is almost a poem in itself. Some poems are longer, for example “On the Rocks Road”, “In the Wake of ‘The Seafarer’”, “By Ferry, Foot and Fate”but, as these are about journeys, this seems appropriate. The other two longer pieces do not seem to fit so well into the collection. “Requiem”is about war and the other, “An English Airman’s Death Recalled” which references Yeats’ poem, is in the form of a radio play, mostly in Irish, with an accompanying translation, with a corpse as one of the characters. Neither poem seems appropriate here, in a collection about landscape and seascape. In truth, it is difficult to know what kind of collection they would fit, particularly the play.
All of the poems have a sense of hiraeth, although most of them are not about Wales. Hiraeth is generally translated as “homesickness” but it means so much more. It implies a longing for a past that you’ve probably never known, a sort of melancholy. If you read the poems, you’ll understand.