Review: Robert Minhinnick’s Delirium

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Delirium by Robert Minhinnick is published by Seren

Jon Gower

Porthcawl-based poet, prose stylist and editor Robert Minhinnick has been writing at the top of his game for so long it’s as if the settings of his quality control mechanism have stuck on ‘high’.

He has won the Welsh Book of the Year award not once, not twice, but three times and his poetry has been praised in many quarters, including being shortlisted for the TSEliot Prize.

His latest offering is no exception when it comes to setting a standard – a series of bright, shiny bits of short prose that shimmer with all the intent and energy that could characterize a fledgling writer.

The language is often there. Sunflower seeds are “those white triangles like baby teeth”, a sky is “lit by lightning”, “the ju-ju of jays let me sweep empty air”. Their syllables are contempt…” while the planet Mars is simply “red as a pheasant’s eye”.

The pieces vary widely, both geographically and in subject matter, from a Stereophonics concert in Sydney to a night of fruit bats on the stage and when “the sky turns the color of oxyacetylene” in from encounters with destitute Bedouins of the desert and their children to fond memories of his parents.

The last of them owes much to a treasure trove of diaries kept by his father in 1945, chronicling his time in Burma as World War II drew to a close, with memories of cobras and five-foot kraits and the days unstable following the atomic detonation at Hiroshima.

The writer also visits his mother in a retirement home, giving her porridge and telling her stories to counter the loneliness imposed by the confinement rules.

Nature Celebrant

Minhinnick loves the dune systems near his home and has been a celebrant of the nature there and the history – including a former convent – buried under the quicksand in many poems and novels such as Nia and sea ​​holly.

They remain a constant backdrop for many of these pieces, with the dune system’s seasonal lakes and their blooming bursts of summer orchids, not to mention the migrating wheatears, the ‘line across the face like lightning. Some sort of David Bowie cosmetic tape…’

There is an airy freshness to the passages of nature writing, most notably in the writer’s mathematical musings on shorebirds as he tries to figure out the square root of sanderlings.

In a simply charming depiction of deer blending into their surroundings as a storm brews, changing the light:

The hinds chewed the bark of blackthorn and did not wait for me, another ghost, but downwind, on the first morning of May. Three of them, and when they turned around together, those deer were spotted like vipers, or striped, I guess, in perfect camouflage.

Yes, hidden, the deer. Coming out of their hiding place then disappearing into the dirty ivory of the blackthorn, yellowed in this last hurricane which they call Storm Hannah.

But my favorite of these lively, lively illustrations of nature is in a piece titled, appropriately enough, “Snipe, Vanishing,” which gives us “the stuttering song of the swamp goat, its zigzagging over the loosening of the dunes.” and the idea that it’s ‘already hard to believe he was ever here. Snipers are harder to track than a knight on a chessboard.

Atmosphere report

The central section of the book, ‘Billionaires’ Shortbread’, is named after one of Porthcawl’s many types of ice cream and is a work in progress, perhaps a novel in the making, offering us insights into the life of characters such as Ffresni and Cai that interconnect and overlap.

It is easy to imagine the evolution of a longer work based on them, part of the extended prose hymn that Minhinnick composes in his ongoing explorations of this otherwise unsung part of South Wales.

Minhinnick is a widely traveled writer, and the final section of the book – dedicated to Jan Morris – brings together atmospheric reports on the arid border regions of Israel and Jordan and on spring in Saskatchewan, when the snow resembles lines of barbed wire. ‘

He visits wartime Iraq, sees a long cat in its enclosure at the Bronx Zoo, and recounts the disputed territory of the Golan Heights where fellow poet, Marwhan Makhoul wrote that “clouds are luckier than the exiled”.

These tight prose pieces may seem like fragments, offshoots of a larger whole, but then they settle in like a well-thought-out lapidary, reminding us of how Minhinnick compares his father’s ability to work stone with those of a poet as he, in turn, creates cynghaned with words as building blocks.

Asking who his father’s walls were intended for, he replies… “Other builders, of course, those few connoisseurs of the language with an instinct for stones, builders who could scan and then reread and perhaps memorize his wall and understand his confusing syntax, the harmonies they heard in his craft.

Which might not be a bad way to sum up how Delirium works – small and beautiful gem-like fragments adding to a satisfying lapidary whole.

Delirium by Robert Minhinnick is published by Seren.

You can buy it at all good bookshops or buy a copy here.

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