A mature, finely crafted collection

Gwales, June 2022

This rich and assured debut, clearly the distillation of some years’ experience and craft, was well worth waiting for.

Rae Howells, although the winner of prestigious competitions and with her work featured in a wide range of journals, has not published a solo collection before. This rich and assured debut, clearly the distillation of some years’ experience and craft, was well worth waiting for. As the title implies, the imagery and subjects of many of the poems revolve around the life and death of bees, but they open out into the widest implications, personal and universal.

The collection is threaded through with a sequence on a dying bee – an individual the poet tried to rescue – which becomes representative of many things, including a dying ecosystem we may or may not be able to save. But the final poem, ‘Stories’, has hope in the survival of ‘a seed holding seeds’.

Another strand running through and entwined with the bee poems is that of motherhood and the loss of children (particularly by miscarriage). ‘The Mermaid’ is a remarkable, tender reimagining of the experience, while in ‘The Honey Jar’ she sees herself as a hive whose honey-store breaks and floods out, drowning the daughter/queen; in ‘Queen’ the image is of an empty hive finally colonised and ‘the new queen made us both alive’. The juxtaposition of ‘Body’ (Dying Bee 9) and ‘Gaslight’ emphasises the common drive of life through all living things, contrasted with the human awareness of individuality. Even so, the experience of motherhood is not idealised; it is exhausting and frustrating, but in poems such as ‘You can Play Water’ and ‘School Run’ there is such joy.

The love poems to her husband include one of the best poems inspired by a river that I have read. ‘River Aire’ is set in his heartland, whose stone and water made him. As they look down from Malham, the river is ‘quicksilver pulled taut as a steel rope / hauled by the unseen sea.’

A childhood memory in ‘Lambs’ contains both the children’s immersion in the natural world and the shock of its vulnerability. The memory of Shirley (suffering from dementia) holds the brilliance of a kingfisher, seen almost a hundred years ago, which lures her to the river. In ‘The Sacred Well Speaks to Mererid’, the poet uses the old Welsh legend of Cantref Gwaelod (itself inspired by signs of the last ice-melt flood) to prophesy the loss of land to the sea through our neglect. Several of the poems use patterning of print on the page to mirror meaning and this is most effective in ‘Woodthinking’, a brilliant tipping of perspective to understand the rich complexity of unseen life in a wood. ‘Winter King’ is a charming portrait of the wren – ‘round like a minim’, singing ‘us into light’. There is rueful humour in ‘The Green Pages’, where adverts from the present are discovered in a future, post-human world reclaimed by nature. ‘Wind Attempts a Fox’ is a bravura evocation of autumn (and foxes), rich in colour and detail.

This is a mature, finely crafted collection from a poet who can draw on the most intimate details of her own life and on a wide knowledge of the natural world to show us how all are linked. As her epigram says, ‘We are nature and it is us.’

Caroline Clark

A review from www.gwales.com, with the permission of the Books Council of Wales.