My Family and Other Superheroes
by Jonathan Edwards
Rating: 4 Stars
‘My Family and Other Superheroes introduces a vibrant and unique new voice from Wales. The superheroes in question are a motley crew. Evel Knievel, Sophia Loren, Ian Rush, Marty McFly, a bicycling nun and a recalcitrant hippo – all leap from these pages and jostle for position, alongside valleys mams, dads and bamps, described with great warmth. Other poems focus on the crammed terraces and abandoned high streets where a working-class and Welsh nationalist politics is hammered out. This is a post-industrial valleys upbringing re-imagined through the prism of pop culture and surrealism. If the author’s subjects have something in common with RS Thomas, or even Terry Street-era Douglas Dunn, his technique and approach owe at least as much to contemporary American poets like James Tate and David Wojahn…’
When it comes to award winners I’m often sceptical, I always approach them with an air of caution. Despite the amount of hype surrounding them I’m often disappointed.
Not so here.
It is clear from the outset just why this collection won the 2014 Costa Poetry Award. Edwards has packed his poetry with real heart, humour and a joyful de-familiarisation of the everyday.
The collection is – appropriately – dedicated to the Edwards family. Many poets dedicate collections to family members, but this is one of the rare occasions where they seem to be racing through the stanzas with us. There’s a strong undercurrent of affection and appreciation for family myth and legend as well as family lore in relation to acknowledged cultural history. This can be seen clearly in poems such as Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren in Crumlin for the Filming of Arabesque, June 1965 and Lance Corporal Arthur Edwards (1900 – 1916), as well as sprinkled throughout the other poems in an enjoyable array of pop culture references and family anecdotes.
From the opening poem – My Family in a Human Pyramid – Edwards sets out his stall very neatly: the commonplace made strange, family at the centre but always viewed from obscure and surreal angles. The first poem explores the concept of a family tree in the form of a human pyramid, that grows and evolves as the poet climbs the levels aided by other family members and a ‘bounce on my nan’s perm’.
However, this collection is far from just an ode to family in all their beguiling strangeness. Edwards explores a wide variety of themes. People-watching is at the centre of being a writer and it is also a driving force in this collection. It’s particularly evident in View of Valleys Village from a Hill, View of Valleys High Street through a Cafe Window and The Bloke in the Coffee Shop, but there’s a keen observational eye acting throughout the collection.
There are intriguing shifts in tone across the four sections of the collection. although I think the first section is my favourite. History and nation each play starring roles. Time slips in and out of focus throughout, most noticeably perhaps in My Uncle Walks to Work 1962. Figures from the past dart across the stage of the poems, ghosts rise up and the landscape veers into view between the stanzas. This is also a love song to Wales, telling of the ordinary people who live there and paying homage to their roots in the land. Haunted by the wars, the mines and an underlying current of violence and disturbing imagery. Mob mentality rears its head in The Performance and FA Cup Winners, dark twists in The Boy with the Pump-action Water Pistol, The Doll and Raskolnikov in Ebbw Vale.
Edwards veers between concrete images in his animal poems and surreal images in poems like Bookcase Thrown through Third Floor Window and Restaurant where I am the Maitre d’ and the Chef is my Subconscious. He somehow manages to make this seamless.
I think this has a great deal to do with the rhythm and rhyme that threads through this collection. The poems sound wonderful read aloud, filled with compelling rhymes and wonderful soundscapes. Hippo, Bouncers and especially The Bloke Selling Talk Talk in the Arcade – which reads like sales patter.
The imagery throughout is undeniably strong and wonderfully original. There are some images that just make me want to smile, cock my head to one side and think yes, that’s it exactly: ‘doing the walk I nicked from him’, ‘the slack gloves of his hands’, ‘flattened by history/ to a buskers backdrop’, ‘from here, I could destroy everyone I know /by blinking’, ‘who spray-painted the swans?’.
A few of my favourite poems combine all these techniques: Anatomy – the landscape of Wales in a welsh body, Brothers -wonderful doubling with a great final line, The Voice in which my Mother Read to Me – a list poem with a great rhythm, Flamingos – utterly joyful and Rilke at War – marvellous and wry.
Original, packed with sparking wit, My Family and Other Superheroes is a pleasure to read.