July 27, 2006

Review of Exile Book and Show


Exile In His Own Country by Gareth Calway, Chepstow Festival, July 22 2006

Chepstow, being both Fortress and Gateway, seemed fitting for ‘Exile In His Own Country.’ The poet enjoyed a special rapport with his audience. ‘I could hear you listening’. A Bristol-Welsh Bard sounding the changes of his personal journey through fifty years, he connected us with the past, often through the noble forms of poetic tradition.

The attractive printed programme explained the meaning of poetry in performance, and its journey, from Beowulf to the present time. The ‘sound-craft of a poem. . . is part of its larger meaning’. With a bit of help on the night from minimalist props, astute lighting and a great soundtrack.

A first memory at Bristol Zoo, at two years old, ‘A toucan’s eye/Explodes into I’ would be enough to exile anyone.

Indeed, bravery marked this performance. Not least for the reminder of school dinners! In ‘The Canteens of Moria’, he connects the ‘webbed, corrupted, gothic, grave-like things’ of ‘The Lord of the Rings’ to 1960s school canteen traumas , and realises we are always ‘part of what we’re forced to eat’. Ditto, Spiritual food, fed to engender everlasting lack of self-worth, in the humorous yet bitter ‘Dear God, ‘elp us to feel ashamed of our bodies’ - a reminder of those Sunday School misguided souls teaching humiliation instead of humility.

Faith was definitely a requirement, however, as any Bristol City supporter knows. 1966 is there all right, ‘refashioned as Hendrix . . . a minishort beauty born to die young’. So is Rugby. Terry Cobner of Pontypool and Wales taught Calway . . . very little, except the imminent ambush familiar to the Welsh. Ah, but Ma Kinnock ‘is as beautiful as the Barley Mountain in spring’ and anyway, ‘I don’t want to be Gareth Edwards. I want to be The Beatles’.

At seventeen -
‘The river’s prophet tongue I now understand;
I am heir to my druid realm at last’.
- Calway still needs ‘Help’ and a ‘real home’.

‘Student House’ poignantly expresses separation from childhood. the ‘cold but not keen’ nostalgia where telephone and door knob ‘hold no communion with (father’s) memory’. Perhaps it is the power that makes people afraid of poetry. Well, get over it – it’s worth it. Who could not relate to being ‘so very far away from the thing I burn for, I can almost touch it’?

The performance was haunted by the pounding hooves of the Ages of Romance, and the metred tread of Pilgrimage, carrying us on through the pain of first love lost: ‘My heart feels nothing of the sudden lance/That smashed its Jericho walls’- to the joust of ‘red knights tilting at perfection’. Football.

Here, the Bard of Bristol examines his own fervour of ‘the inferno of baying noise’ but then goes on to pitch us line after line of why the f-word, played out in ‘pavilions of banners’, continues to exact such consummate devotion. Calway shows it as one way a man can prove his loyalty - the pitch as a kind of tournament lawn on which physical skill combines with abstract virtues. ‘I know it’s all balls but I’m City till I die’.

The rollicking ‘Ballad of Ashton Gate’ is a carol, ending the first half with ‘The Atyeo End in excelsis . . .’

The second half kicked off with an energetic rap, an instant hit.

‘I came here for Eden and got Bill Gates.
Life is a Bitch, but the songs are great’

leading into Calway’s tribute to the ultimate hitmakers, the “toppermost of the poppermost” Beatles, complete with childhood mime playing Mam’s laundry slats to their “raw whoops of joy in four part harmony.”

There followed the ‘long siege’ of mock examinations, like watching a no goal match on ‘desk terraces’ in freezing classrooms:

Stoned on cold and boredom
With fifty-two minutes still to go’.

More laughter followed for Calway’s teacher waiting to be inspected by the ‘little blue-eyed men from Saturn’. Having now been ‘exiled’ in a Norfolk he loves for a quarter of a century, Calway is ‘subconsciously still waiting for teacher to come’ This was, for me, the most moving poem of the evening.

‘O Jesus! Still these discordant Years,
That carping torn, that gong-tormented Sea’.

Calway’s work is rooted and grown in real life. This means that, although the poems are written in demanding forms, they are fluent and require only to be heard. It’s a song of life that is sometimes ‘like trying to tune a pitchfork in a sow’s ear’ but includes the unexpected hilarities, -

“The assembly on healthy Norfolk won’t be given this morning
As both members of staff concerned are ill”.

- a whole life in two ‘halfs’ (as one audience member put it) Desperate but reaching for the stars, just as the ‘Star Teacher’ tells his pupil to do. Not bad, for someone once ‘marked for life’ by a teacher, lipstick matching her vicious red pen, who ‘delighted in Literature as some might in torture’. ‘Mark this’, says Calway, offering back Petrarchan sonnets, ballads, villanelles, iambic pentameter, and liberating free verse.

This is an heroic performance of warm, living, accessible - often very funny - poetry of great stature, which shows how extraordinary ‘ordinary’ life actually is.

Madeline Jones

1 comment:

Gareth Calway said...

Wow again! Thank you Madeline Jones. I was obviously right when I said I could really hear the audience listening. You pick up very reassuringly on the poetic forms I spend so much time and effort trying to craft and you respond with generosity and great intelligence to the content the forms are helping to shape and convey. You say all the tings a performer wants to hear about a performance that's been sweated over in an effort to make it look effortless! You even allow the outrageous attempt to link my Bristol City affliction with the apsirations of mediaeval romance. I'm glad you got the humour too. After all, if you didn't laugh, you'd WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGG GGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHH.