Underrated and Underestimated


Sweet Dust & Growling Lambs
, Phil Maillard
(146pp, Shearsman)


Phil Maillard is one of a legion of underrated and underestimated poets writing in Wales. Prolific and consistent in character and style, his poems use the space on the page alongside the space between the words - they're like atoms! - to explore language and ideas, places and people. There's an obvious relation as far as feel of the poems is concerned to his contemporaries - Chris Torrance, Graham Hartill, even Alan Halsey - though Maillard uses less stylistic inventiveness and experimentation than these, relying more on description.

This single volume collection consists of three books, covering work from the 1980s, 1975-2004, and 1990-2007. It illustrates this consistency of style, theme and use of language perfectly.

 In 'Old man in the Bus Station', a poem I first published in the magazine Frames
, the poet strips back language to its basics, describing a scene many would walk past without noticing. The man of the title has 'A kind of / confident indifference / crossed with innocence-/

Later, two consecutive poems give another clue as to the way words are fitted into open spaces: in 'Sea Lock', which reminds me of both Shamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, he describes:

     a morning haze

     where we pick early blackberries
     through wire

The poem is sparse, punctuated with rich words where others might use punctuation.

This next poem, 'An Afternoon and Evening With John Tripp' tells of a visit made with the great man to Maillard's writing group (which I attended) in Newport. The language is informal, a chat more than a poem. A story you might tell to your mates in a pub. Towards the end of the poem ' Someone mentions Samuel Beckett.' I'm sure that was me, and I remember John's rejoinder well, which Phil obviously does too:

      Have I got Beckett right?
says John,
      He thinks it's all shit - is that it?

The poem is full of warmth and friendship, capturing a brief moment in time and speaking it, kindly.

If there is a newness to the world as seen by the poet, I think it's a moving away from the emphasis on people and urban places to one of birds and villages. Phil Maillard has never been a nature poet as such, but there are poems here which surprised me for their sensitivity and eagle eye observations. This makes me think even more of the two (English and Irish) poets I mentioned earlier and is a pleasant surprise for me. In 'Skinningrove' the first four lines are like a written photograph:

     On the cliff
          above Boulby
     a sparrowhawk
          gliding low.

Whereas in the last verse, Maillard writes in classic Anglo-Welsh mode:

     The lagoon below
          is not red, but
     the stone banks
          & the bridge-feet
     retain a stain.

These three books in one volume are a superb insight, and a great introduction should one be needed, to the poetry of Phil Maillard. Go for a walk in the countryside, out of season, return home through town and sit by the fire with a drink of your choosing. Slide this volume across the table and treat yourself for the next couple of hours.

            John Gimblett 2009