Review of Ness Owen’s debut collection

Ness Owen’s Mamiaith (2019), London, Arachne Press

Ness Owen’s debut collection hits the ground running: there is a sense of earth underfoot and feet marching to break historic silences and oppressions. These are poems about claiming one’s voice and speaking out, standing with others in solidarity: ‘join us/march where you’re standing/they can’t ignore us all’ (‘March’). The poems also speak – or sing – of claiming one’s ‘mother tongue’ (‘mamiaith’) against all the forces that have tried to steal and ‘Not’ it. These are poems written by a Welsh woman, speaking from her own particulars of memory, family, motherhood, but also lending her voice to those without one, who have been ‘shut up’, and shining a light on past cultural and linguistic harms, and what has been left in their wake. She makes a stand against nuclear power and radioactive mud (both contested topical issues in Wales, as I write), and writes movingly about a daughter leaving home for the first time – that ‘womb-aching’ rite of passage. Such universal themes are present, with the poems often witty, with a quietly revolutionary spirit present that seems to say: seek ‘unmarked paths with/no arrows’ for ‘choice is yours/you can sit and fester … or the door is open/can you still walk? (The Meeting’).

In ‘One Name – Cymru’, Owen asks: ‘someone tell me when/did we become foreign?’ It is worth mentioning, for those who don’t know, that ‘Wales’/’the Welsh’ goes back to the Anglo-Saxon word wealas, meaning ‘foreigners’, where the indigenous Britons spoke Brittonic, the language that would become Welsh in Wales. Owen is drawing on this history, explicitly choosing the Welsh name for Wales: Cymru (‘Cymry’ meaning ‘fellow-countrymen’). Poems like this one expose the ancient legacy – still, alas, alive today – that to speak Welsh, even in one’s homeland, is somehow, at the very least, quaint, and, at worst, strange, foreign, wrong. Against historic and modern oppressive or scornful forces, therefore, Owen’s speaker says: ‘We are pobl y werin/shouldered by sea/sheltered by mountain/standing up to each/misinterpretation … not yet silenced/finding a voice that/is ours to reclaim/a word at a time we/need only one name’. ‘Pobl y werin’ is translated in the book as ‘people of the land’. These are poems, then, rooted in a particular history: that of a Welsh woman from Ynys Môn who is claiming her right to use her linguistic inheritance.

The book opens with a poem that reads like a warmly-remembered poem from childhood that establishes one theme of the book, which is ‘roots’. Here, willows are planted in remembrance of a woman who has died (someone beloved) and they take root and spread ‘entangled branches’, immortalising her ‘in the garden where/we played in upturned-wardrobes’ and where, in November, ‘winds tore leaves from her branches/and I watched her wave goodbye/knowing spring would bring her back’. This poem links very nicely with the closing poem ‘How to Begin’, which, set at the end of the book, seems to echo that famous line used by TS Eliot in his Four Quartets: ‘In my end is my beginning’. It brings in dancing ‘barefoot on home soil’ and new-life imagery of ‘eyes open wide bathing/in the warm newness/of the undiscovered’.

‘March’, the third poem, is about the 21/1/17 worldwide Women’s March, a protest held the day after the inauguration of Trump, as a refusal of the values he symbolises. Women all over the world joined together against a long history of oppression: ‘They wanted us broken/stranded away from our-/selves and each other …/they wanted silence no-one/to question why difference is/a problem, a worry, a threat …’.

Already, we can see a response to being silenced emerging, the poem shifting towards the celebration of ‘us gathering’ and the sound of ‘the tread of our feet like/others before us marching’.

In another poem, ‘The Appeal From the Women of Wales (1923-24)’, a found poem that uses the words of a peace petition that was signed by 60% of women in Wales in the early twentieth-century, we see again Owen joining her voice to these others from across the decades, shaping their words into a poem: ‘this/is how it begins in your/own good time. Long/for the day when there’s/no turning to weapons’. We see a ‘walking with’ those women ‘arm in arm’. This is one of the five poems that are presented bilingually, with the Welsh word, so keenly heard in Eisteddfod ceremonies, ‘Heddwch’ (Peace), ringing out in the final couplet: ‘Heddwch drwy gydymdrech./Heddwch i fyd cyfan.’ (‘Peace through solidarity/Peace to the whole world.’)

A central bilingual poem is the title poem ‘Mamiaith’ which means ‘mother tongue’. It is here that the poet writes of the language (Welsh) that was ‘stolen’ from her ‘mother’s/mouth’ and ‘thrown back to me/in pieces’. While these pieces ‘fit so neatly/inside my head’, suggesting verbal fluency, they ‘will/not fall onto the page’ as written words. Left ‘tongue-tied’, the poem addresses head-on the shadow of shame that left its mark on Welsh speakers across the generations when the language was deliberately proscribed, in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Welsh Not, a piece of wood carved with the words, or initials WN, was hung round a child’s neck in school if they spoke in their Welsh mother tongue. This, a now-infamous part of that education system, was used to promote the use of English by stigmatising Welsh-speaking children. In Owen’s poem, even the ‘grandchildren of the Not’ have had to live with this legacy, making the speaker in ‘Mamiaith’ ‘a stranger to what’s/already mine’. The pen becomes a betrayer – but, in answer to the question ‘how do we tell our story in/a thin language?’, Owen’s two poems sit side-by-side in this book, in both Welsh and English. They serve as testimony: she has claimed what is hers.  

It is this claiming of voice, of the right to speak and write freely in one’s languages, that comes through so inspiringly in this collection. Language is such a fundamental aspect of selfhood, after all. Though there are many forces that try to shut us up, in various ways, here is a poet that is standing for articulation as a healthy fulfilment of what it means to be human, remembering that the word ‘articulation’ goes back to ‘joint or joining’ as if our work is to join up the dots from our past, personally and collectively, in order to come into ‘the/inevitable joy of being’, the words we are left with as we close the book.

Fiona Owen

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