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Black Bough
Book of the Month

September 2023


Zoë Brigley’s Aubade after a French Movie (Broken Sleep, 2020) begins with two quotations which give an insight into this charged short collection, which is concerned with women’s bodies and pleasure but complicated by the views and voices of men who condemn or eroticise female spaces. The first quotation sees male critic Leslie Harris dismiss the Welsh medieval erotic poet (who is to play a big part in this short collection) as ‘nothing more than a whore’. A contrast to this is offered in Anais Nin’s criticism of male fear of female sexuality, positing instead a politics of freedom and escape.


The first poem ‘The Men We Are Meant To Love’ explores types of men, privileging those who are able to pleasure women sexually, whilst being gentle with “sweet intimacies”, “those good men who feel it too who open up read books” and


do not shove a woman into

the spare room at the college party do not touch

the behind of their co-worker do not force

their lover to have an abortion do not prevent

their lover from having an abortion


The unpunctuated breathlessness of poems like this are effective in conveying the inner life of the female poetic speakers and how they can be taken advantage of at any moment by predatory males.


A quote from Audre Lord is used later to describe how female powerlessness can be combatted by being in touch with the erotic, as a counter to “depression, self denial”. This brings us to Brigley’s translations of Gwerful Mechain’s poetry (inspired by the Welsh medieval poet and the scholarship on this by Katie Gramich), which focus directly on sex. In ‘Gwerful Wets Her Petticoat’ and ‘How Gwerful Will Fuck Dafydd Llwyd’, Gwerful revels in describing her “sweet, silky panties” and “Lit thighs open”; deeply carnal, short poems. These poems are not for the reserved as they describe in detail the physicality of sex in detail culminating in “How good/ the match struck as ecstasy explodes”. Gwerful is revealed as being reflective and soulful. I particularly enjoyed the contemporary feel of ‘Gwerful Tells Dafydd Llwyd About the End of the World’, another recreation of Gwerful that takes the poetic speaker out of the past, giving a sense of more contemporary relevance:


Before the wars, we’ll look to the stars – more miracles

                               happen on oceans than at altars,

              and though presidents do give orders,

              witches strip and dance on the shore.


There are poems of revenge, too. One where Gwerful curses a man for beating a woman


In his chest, let a sharp stone slide – slanted

                              down to split his sternum wide


At a linguistic level, Brigley’s translations/ imaginative reconstructions of the medieval Welsh poet verse forms show a great deal of craft with strong, sustained sound patterning giving energy and purpose to these animated, spirited poems. The poems attempt to capture the spirit of Gwerful rather than compromise on this by focusing too much on verseform.


We come to the climax of this series of poems. In Welsh literature, Gwerful’s ‘Ode to the Cunt’ is notorious and Brigley’s translation brings the poem into a contemporary context with its reference to “dumb-as-fuck”, mansplaining poets and to “Wind Street”, Swansea’s renowned watering hole. The poem revels in bodily pleasure, reinforcing the theme of this work – that women’s empowerment can come through sexual expression and through the celebration of this through poetry rather than pornography. Brigley suggests to the reader (via Breillat) that “pornography is only a commercial invention of sex”.


The title poem ‘Aubade after a French Movie’ takes us again to the relation between man and women with French cinema as a moody backdrop. The romance and sexual charge of this poem comes out, once again, with strong bodily imagery, enveloping darkness and images, such as a cloak, veil and lace.


The poem ‘Because This Love’ is one which I found particular affecting with its mix of connection and intimacy and fragility. This is a gentle, beautiful and mysterious poem:


because this love is strong as a rope;

because words on a page are not kisses on the mouth;

because I am strong & I am not strong


because there is a crack in the eggshell

because something is tapping its way out


By channelling the spirit of Gwerful, Zoe Brigley opens up a medieval Welsh female poet explosively to a legion of new readers and both politicises and re-defines the erotic in

Welsh poetry.


Review by Dr. Matthew M. C. Smith. Matthew is a widely published Welsh writer with a PhD on Robert Graves and Welsh Celticism. He is the author of The Keeper of Aeons (Broken Spine, 2022) and is widely published.


An interview with Z Brigley

Matthew M.C. Smith in conversation with the author of Aubade After a French Movie (Broken Sleep Books)


Is your more recent work developing out of the themes of this work?


In a way, it is ... Gwerful set me free a little bit because she breaks the rules of what is allowed to be said or not in poetry. I remember reading her when I was 19 and thinking, wow, that's wild. Maybe she gives me space and encouragement to write about things that shouldn't be written about. 


What were the challenges and inspiring aspects of translating Gwerful’s work?


I had to make some decisions about how faithful I was going to be. Katie Gramich has already done some very faithful translations of Gwerful Mechain, so I thought I needed to do something different. And my main thought was to modernize it in a very stark way so that you could read it and feel the modernity of speech and issues. 


I did change lines that I thought were a bit dodgy - exoticising type imagery for example of Arabian princes - I just didn't want it in my version. I updated the dubious priests of her version to men who sexually harass women. I inserted places that mean something in Wales like Wind Street in Swansea which is renowned as the site of loads of wild partying.I worked on including modern language like fleek, mansplainers, and himpathy. 


Are there any other strands of Welsh writing that you wish to experiment with?


I am actually still writing and responding to Gwerful. I have just been writing about her poem 'In Defence of Red Annie' which is a long riposte to another poet who criticises Red Annie and all women. Gwerful writes a response. I am not writing a translation this time, but working on writing reflections in response about how women are judged in court, which is something I have thought about a lot through my anti-violence advocacy. 


Has Gwerful become a heroine for you and are there other Welsh female writers that are similarly iconic?


She is a heroine for me. It sounds corny but when I was going through a very painful and difficult time with my marriage breaking up I was writing these poems, and I was having to do readings - it is quite a thing having to read Gwerful's poems out loud to people. I don't think that I am a naturally outgoing person and so I had this idea to start a routine of just talking to Gwerful in my mind before readings, and asking her to give me the heart and the spirit - the hwyl as we would say in Wales to do her poems justice. We have many brilliant women writers in Wales, and I have been lucky to be encouraged by many of them - Gillian Clarke, Menna Elfyn and Pascale Petit for example - but Gwerful is more mysterious as someone from the long past - there is so little that we know about her beyond the poems. 

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Black Bough
Book of the Month

August 2023

Sarah Connor

The Black Bough Poetry book of the month is The Crow Gods by Devon-based poet, Sarah Connor (published by  Sídhe Press). 


Sarah Connor’s first poem in The Crow Gods focuses on the human desire for stories and takes us on a metaphorical journey through life’s ‘twisting caravan’ with ‘stories at night, the stories of stars—of men, and beasts and gods and flaming suns’. With its focus on myth and metanarrative, this is an epic way to begin a book of nature poetry, weaving in landscapes and flora and fauna. In this work, too, human beings not only tell and share stories but become those ‘stories, wrapped and tangled’, a hint, here, of human complexity and difference. Connor encourages us to explore the fictions we create as humans which define, contain and enthrall us; storytelling is presented as an utterly essential to humanity.


 In ‘Spring in the woods’, we’re taken to a spring wood, where the force of nature is strangely symbolised by candles and flames, only then to be cast abruptly into space. These giant leaps and awe-inspiring transformations reveal the imaginative jumps in Connor’s work that seem to ever-proliferate; the poet’s voice transforms into a darting hare in one poem (‘Hare voice hare'), and in another, rooks return home to a sky that’s a ‘paper lantern/ lit by the tealight sun’. This collection often features strong images of fire, warmth and picturesque, illuminating beauty; I’m more used to Sarah’s frosty poems written with her mini ice pick of a pen so the radiating warmth of many of the poems were beautiful to read and easy to conjure in the imagination; optimistic, too - it’s impossible not to feel hopeful when we read that ‘It’s hard/ not to see joy/ where we see/ life’, despite the skepticism expressed when Goldfinches are unable to ‘keep the world together’ when they stitch ‘the hedge/ to the sky’.


A humanist vision is implied when we are encouraged to celebrate the beauty of nature – ‘and everything’s humming/ and singing and fluttering - / but this is as far as we’ll go’. In this collection, we have stories, pictures, sound, movement and connection. Live is vital and fast-moving. Conversely, death is all-powerful and is both terrifying and awe-inspiring. We see this in ‘Peregrines’, where the female peregrine falcon ‘praises’ her deadly male mate, an ultimate predator of small animals.

One of the most memorable pieces, arguably, is the title poem, which for me, plays particularly darkly on Ted Hughes’s mythology of the crow to bring out the full horror of having cancer. In Connor’s version, the crow-gods, pull apart a woman, taking a breast, ovaries and causing burning flesh.  Tropes of punishment, suffering and sacrificing that are deeply resonant of ancient myths give this short collection gravitas.  Contrasting poems show careful ordering of poems to create shifts, difference and range, showing what Sarah Connor can do. Another memorable poem is ‘Car’, which allows us to contemplate the family moments that feel so immediate but are so fleeting and become quickly nostalgic, a subject of poignance, as children grow up and parents grow older. Everyday, banal memories become elevated through time when those moments are gone.

This car is full of ghosts – echoes of us,

Trailing muddy boots, wet swimming costumes, snatched coffees.

Oh, we’ve lived here. Spilt water, secrets, fizzy drinks.

Shouted – at the radio, at the sat nav

At the end of the poem, the family are imagined as ‘still driving down those country roads’, a reminder perhaps to never be complacent, to never forget that all moments have the potential to be precious and to be enshrined in memory.

The Crow Gods is a heady experience as we are taken through Beltane, Lammastide and Solstice; through the seasons and old customs, to the present of city skylines and back then to the deep past. From star-gazing to contemplating ‘the wisdom of the roots’. Sarah Connor’s book is a beautiful, moving one; authentic, without any affectation. If you like Ted Hughes, Roger Deakin, Rob Cowen and Robert Macfarlane, this is a valuable addition to your library.

Review by Dr. Matthew M. C. Smith, author of The Keeper of Aeons

Sarah Connor was our featured poet for Christmas 2021. See Sarah's Silver Branch series feature, here.

Clichere for the last six months of reviews!

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