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Ledbury Emerging Critics: Dzifa Benson reviews ‘Natural Phenomena’ by Meryl Pugh

Meryl Pugh is the award-winning author of two previous pamphlets, Relinquish and The Bridle, but Natural Phenomena (Penned in the Margins), her eagerly anticipated first full poetry collection, opens up new ground in the poet’s oeuvre. In the blurb, Pugh is described as “both futurist and flâneuse.” The future and society’s relationship to consumerism concern the poet, and are reflected in her pessimistic enquiry of the present rapacious age in the first two lines of a poem like ‘Landfill Oracle’:


They are not levelled absolutely flat, these plains
where neither salvage nor growth is possible.


Later in the poem, Pugh considers a future where the idea of our present humanity has receded into a kind of putrid mythology that stinks to the heavens:


The day we are as distant as the gods
our children will hang over the edge of sites like this
as – like the gods – we rise in odours and seepages.


In poems such as these, Pugh most seems to channel the “determined, resourceful individual keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city, and the liberating possibilities of a good walk” that Laura Elkin describes in her own book, Flâneuse.

Historically, the act of flânerie was the preserve of young, literary minded men, Baudelaire and his ilk, who described and analysed the modernising city for its social customs, art, commerce and politics. In Natural Phenomena, Pugh co-opts the practice to contemplate how a city might revert to the ‘remember ruin’ of the poem ‘Palace’, where ‘a wall / sags, then sliding façade, / flowers in a corner’.

The overwhelming sense of a kind of urban pastoral pervades the book. It’s something that is demonstrably difficult to observe without walking the landscape of the city. Poetry from these isles often displays a peculiarly British preoccupation with writing about nature as a raison d’être for the poetry itself, but Pugh’s poetry, like Alice Oswald’s, is distinctive because it layers and complicates meaning beyond a mere rumination on the bucolic.

As flâneuse, the poet draws attention to the unexpected wildness where ‘roots buckle the tarmac’ in the city with its overwhelm of metal, concrete and glass. ‘Green Alkanet’, for example, shows how that wildness can go unremarked unless someone is specifically looking with an unfiltered and seeking gaze:


From the hot flank of the bus to the pavement lunch
…………between meetings
in the dazed, hot, infinite day of August:
green alkanet in profusion, persistent, taken for granted
between brick wall and tarmac, on vacant sites,
untended verges.


But the wildness isn’t just displayed in the existence of this plant that pops up persistently in all these unnoticed spaces. The plant itself with its ‘hairy, blistered leaves’ is a wild thing that returns the gaze defiantly and sees the irrevocable loss inherent in social negligence:


………………… alkanet in flower stares
with clarity brewed in a white day-for-night pupil — where
is altered, reversed — and holds in its blue, pitiless iris
the same blue intensity that drags us, thrashing, on —


In this way, the poems reveal the city in all its multi-functionality and multi-dimensionality. Or, to put it another way, persistent nature barely tamed by concrete, is revealed to be capricious or even liminal — a word that has become baggy from overuse, but is an appropriate descriptor here for the logic inherent in the title, i.e. natural phenomena breaking through the cracks of urbanity.

On first glance, the poems seem curiously unpeopled, with only a pronoun here and there to suggest the presence of the speaker. However, it’s more accurate to say that most of the poems are disembodied rather than unpeopled, giving the reader the uncanny sensation that she is listening in on the flâneuse’s own internal dialogue as she passes through the various landscapes associated with a metropolis. When the reader then encounters a rare pronoun such as ‘my hand on bark’ in a poem like ‘Walks’, it provides the kind of jolt that is more than recognition. It’s something akin to the familiar made strange, like revisiting a place that you haven’t been to for years, sure that you know it, and finding that things have shifted in your memory of where they should be positioned.

Further, the technique, similar to an impressionistic painting, that Pugh employs in the fragmentary, incomplete phrases concentrates the mind on perception rather than comprehension. The poem ‘Walks’, for instance, uses this technique in a rhythm that drives time forward but also refracts it, mimicking the way the eye of the walker briefly falls on chance things as she moves onward. It has the effect of throwing into sharp relief how much the flâneuse is surrounded by nature even beneath the ‘tower block’s regard’.

In fact, it’s not so much the sense of sight as much as the sense of sound, an enduring preoccupation of Pugh’s, that aids this perception (as opposed to, or before, comprehension). It’s there right from the offset in the first poem, ‘Palace’, suffused as it is with dominant R and S sounds that form a ‘razed echo’. Elsewhere, in ‘Simultaneous Incessant’ sounds pile on top of sounds:


and voices up and down the stairs crossing
siren crossing women calling there is
no car no cyclist lying on his back
across the white line and now, I,
here, fly me to the moon on piano and muted
trumpet grate of air conditioning clamped
saucepan lid van door low aeroplane


All this sound reaches a culmination of form, mode and content in the spatial poem ‘Transits’ on which the collection hinges and from which all the other poems fan out. The poet explicitly states that it’s “a poem for sounds and voices” and it combines overheard speech, disembodied voices and the incidental sounds of transit: train stations, the carriages of trains, the streets, aeroplanes  The typography and sound echoes of the poem resemble the cacophony of the city.

It’s instructive to bear in mind that the book is dedicated to the memory of Pugh’s long-time friend Tara Few, which elucidates the references to ‘her’ throughout the collection and makes it an elegy too. There are several poems that express this loss, which isn’t just personal but geographical and societal too. In ‘Although’, we find:


Every day nothing, no answer; a lack which has made itself
at home in this room, in the park, sick of whispers. That’s
enough, dear lost, dear gone, enough, we surpass you –


and in ‘Walks’:


magpies against a bone cold sky
flat commonplace of absence


While this collection is concerned with and reveals the fragility of human certainty in the face of phenomena, both natural and man-made, it doesn’t falter into melancholy. This is because the energy and clarity of diction, even in the face of a disembodied fragmentation of thought, holds firm against sentimentality, exemplified by  the way the last poem, ‘On’, depicts the flâneuse walking towards open water and, perhaps, hope too.



You can buy Natural Phenomena from Penned in the Margins.

Dzifa Benson is currently studying for an MA on the Text & Performance course at Birkbeck University and RADA. Her poetry, prose, drama, libretti and journalism have been widely published and performed in contexts such as Poetry Review, Magma, Wasafiri, The Guardian, Tate Britain, London Literature Festival, the Houses of Parliament, The Royal Opera House, BBC radio and television and the Courtauld Institute of Art where she was writer-in-residence in 2008-2009. She is currently developing a number of plays and a transmedia project, The Spit of Me, an artistic, social and biological exploration of the body’s relationship to time, identity and migration.

The Ledbury Emerging Critics Programme was founded this year by Sandeep Parmar and Sarah Howe to encourage diversity in poetry reviewing culture and support emerging critical voices. Open to budding BAME poetry critics resident in the UK, the scheme offers an intensive eight-month mentorship programme, including workshops, one-to-one mentorship and critical feedback.

The Poetry School will be publishing reviews by all eight participants in the Ledbury Emerging Critics Programme.

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Abandoned Gears‘ by darkday. This image has been cropped and a filter placed over it. Licence.