Review – Carrying Women Across Rivers
‘Dear reader, please don’t have great expectations about my poetry collections because you might be disappointed and I don’t wish to be hated by you’ warns Welsh writer Rhys Hughes on the back cover of this collection, ‘Carrying Women Across Rivers’.
In fact, the warning wasn’t necessary because I found myself enjoying this collection immensely. I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure what I would make of it at first. I’m an avid collector and reader of poetry. My shelves groan under the weight of books, many written and self-published by friends and fellow poets. They vary enormously in style, but most are I suppose what you’d classify as ‘serious’ verse. Rhys Hughes’ poems and prose poems are, for the most part, light-hearted in tone. The author describes them as ‘comical’, but ‘absurdist’ is a much better description – and, to be honest, that’s what I love about them.
The poems and the poet don’t take themselves seriously, but behind them is an admirable skill that belies their irreverent take on life. Not all of them grabbed me straight off, but those that did stuck fast.
One of my favourites is the prose piece ‘When I Discovered Laziness’ which a great example of the kind of perverse ‘it works but it shouldn’t work’ logic that underlies lots of the pieces in this collection (and accidentally reinforces my view that laziness really is the best policy).
The writer makes good use of wordplay, as for instance in Fruit Ditty: ‘Mango, but Woman stay’. Visual imagery also comes to the fore in poems like Lip Zipper:
‘the zipper of his lips had broken through misuse, His tongue flopped free and licked the sea while the cheek trees were in bloom’.
‘Whirlwind Romance’ sent me spinning with its clever notion of a couple whose love is a natural vortex – a great example of the writer’s knack for taking a well-worn phrase and twisting it until it becomes something entirely different.
‘Leaving You Because’ is another clever poem – an amusing idea in itself, in which a partner lists their ex’s bad habits – which springs a clever verbal surprise at the end. Worthy of mention, too – if only because I’ve never come across such a thing before – are ‘Three Grid Poems’, which have been designed to be read coherently down every column, across every row and along the diagonals, with the grids interacting with each other (a lot easier to read than to explain!) There are shape poems, too, such as the clever ‘Pyramid Scheme’ and ‘Uncommon Prayer’ in the shape of a golem.
The writer employs a witty sense of playfulness, which often borders on the absurd and occasionally meanders into the grotesque, as for example in his poem ‘Slimy Man’ – a wonderful, if painful, parody of that type of ego-driven performance poet who is all too familiar a figure to those, like me, who inhabit the poetry open mic scene.
My favourite poem in the collection is ‘Sensible Ode To An Absurd Moon’. This, like most of my favourites, is a non-rhyming poem. It tells a story, of sorts – a stream of consciousness which encompasses separation, desire, jealousy and frustration – and like many of these poems abounds in unexpectedly sensuous imagery, in amongst the absurd:
‘Standing in the tide next to me, breasts and thighs flecked with foam – That’s her all over’. I also loved the line: ‘The dungs of the moon will grow kisses and strange thoughts and raids on tombs and eels’.
Throughout the collection, I get the sense that beneath the playful witty exterior lies a sensuous vulnerability:
‘Wane and wax, gibbous and spread
I was moon all over,
A moon in the shape of a man,
Lonely man, lonely moon,
One face, endless orbit’.
All in all, despite my initial reservations, I surprised myself by really enjoying this book. It says something about it that, long after finishing this review, I kept finding myself sneakily dipping back into its pages, each time finding new things to enjoy and amuse.
Rhys Hughes was born in Wales but has lived in many different countries. He graduated as an engineer and currently works as a tutor of mathematics. He began writing fiction at an early age and his very first book, Worming the Harpy, was published in 1995. Since that time he has published more than fifty other books, and his short stories have been translated into ten languages.
Rebecca Lowe is a poet based in Swansea, Wales, UK. She has two published collections, Blood and Water, publ. The Seventh Quarry, Nov 2020 (www.seventhquarrypress.com) and Our Father Eclipse, publ. Culture Matters, April 2021 (www.culturematters.org.uk).