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Off Center

Ange Mlinko on Lynette Roberts.

T.S. Eliot published two of her books at Faber; Dylan Thomas was best man at her wedding; Robert Graves considered her “one of the few true poets now writing.” Lynette Roberts was one of  those off-center, cerebral female Modernists like Riding and Loy and H.D. and Moore, sharing with them a taste for recondite surfaces. Her magnum 
opus, Gods with Stainless Ears: A Heroic Poem is unlike anything these women produced, or any man for that matter. Written between 1941–43, it is about a marriage destroyed by the war. The apotheosis of  the poem is a miscarried pregnancy. For all its bold inventiveness, it is at bottom an autobiography — her husband, poet Keidrych Rhys, was called up for a tour of duty in 1940, and she stayed behind in his Welsh village, Llanybri, near Swansea, which came under heavy bombardment in 1942. You can hear it in the texture of her poem. As she wrote in her introduction: “The use of congested words, images, and certain hard metallic lines are introduced with deliberate emphasis    ...    
e.g. Factory hands and repetitive lines re-occur with the same movement as with a machine.” Machines, yes, but machines merged with archaic Welsh meters (Roberts practiced her englyns). She was a pastoralist dedicated to techne, to the discovery of sound patterns that revealed the quiddity of the thing being described. (Much like Hopkins.) Yet she lived in an era which was leaving pastoral far 
behind (“Pastoral ding-dong is out,” she wrote). Her closest peer in this regard may have been Ian Hamilton Finlay, whose sculpture garden, Little Sparta, features visual and verbal puns that play on the propinquity between Arcadia and war theatre — such as a stele captioned “Reed-Pipe” above an engraving of a machine gun with 
bullets as finger-stops.

A special fondness for the non-canonical poet usually involves something personal, doesn’t it? I feel an impulsive warmth toward Roberts. This has at least as much to do with the prose contained in her Diaries, Letters and Recollections as it does with the experimental Gods with Stainless Ears. For the same woman who wrote that visionary poem also wrote carefully observed, down-to-earth reportage of village mores, about her children, about coracle-making, farming, and Welsh language and architecture. She was a housewife who spent time with other housewives. Her diary starts out, “My sister’s 
birthday, and I have celebrated it by scrubbing the floor, cleaning the grate. Keidrych says I have some funny ideas about poets. I have. 
I think good real living is more important than spreading yourself on paper.” She wanted to be “just a normal person who can take my full share of responsibility.”

This devotion to hearth and village was acquired after an adventurous youth. She was born in Buenos Aires to a family that had 
emigrated from Australia, and before that from Wales. Her first language was Spanish. She was educated in London at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, traveled to Germany, Spain, and Hungary, and became engaged to an intelligence officer/amateur racing driver who was said to be the model for James Bond. All this she left behind to marry instead her Welsh poet and raise a family in the country. By doing so she was also returning to her ancestral home and language — 
mediated by Argentinian Spanish and the harsh new lexicon of the twentieth century:


If you come my way that is    ...
Between now and then, I will offer you
A fist full of rock cress fresh from the bank
The valley tips of garlic red with dew
Cooler than shallots, a breath you can swank

In the village when you come. At noon-day
I will offer you a choice bowl of cawl
Served with a “lover’s” spoon and a chopped spray
Of   leeks or savori fach, not used now,

In the old way you’ll understand.
                    — From Poem from Llanybri


Lynette Roberts gave up poetry in her late forties. She suffered a psychotic break and underwent several hospitalizations (it ran in the family; her beloved brother was in asylums all his short life). She died in rural Wales in 1995, having reverted to Spanish in her final illness. There aren’t many poets whom I yearn to go back in time and meet. But reading Lynette Roberts makes me wistful for her company. She would — I imagine — have taken me foraging for “savori fach.”

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This poem originally appeared in the February 2013 issue of Poetry magazine

Related

  • Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of four books of poetry: Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of 2013; Shoulder Season (2010),...

Prose from Poetry Magazine

Off Center

Ange Mlinko on Lynette Roberts.

Related

  • Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia and earned her BA from St. John's College and MFA from Brown University. She is the author of four books of poetry: Marvelous Things Overheard (2013), which was selected by both the New Yorker and the Boston Globe as a best book of 2013; Shoulder Season (2010),...

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