I first read Pugh on someone else’s website wherein they quoted the whole of her poem “Sometimes.” It was shortly after November 2nd, and the lines “A people sometimes will step back from war; / elect an honest man; decide they care / enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.” It was a sentiment I needed to hear that first week of that particular month, for such sometimes moments seemed particularly few and far between then.
This collection, already a decade and a half old, showcases at its front what were then Pugh’s most recent poems including the prize-winning “M.S.A.” and “Intercity Lullaby.” The former, a reminisce of a young Iranian girl met in Berlin, coupled with the above poem gave me pause. I’m not a particular fan of political or social action poetry, the dogma of belief clouding poetic vision and turning what should be a pleasurable read into either a naked appeal to choose sides or a hectoring harangue at the reader for the sin of not caring about what the author cares about.
But there was a simple lyricism to Pugh’s work, everyday language choices that eschewed flowery rhetoric while likewise steering past the mechanistic vocabulary of the earnest do-gooder. Often her poems are unadorned story poems much like the bulk of short story writer extraordinaire, Raymond Carver. Pugh has a fondness for Scandinavian stories and tales of the sea, her Welsh background perhaps making her feel akin to those former conquerors of Britain.
Within the framework of such language lie hidden bombs of feeling that can suddenly wrench emotion through a matter-of-fact account. In the poem “McGonagall’s crucifixion,” Pugh writes
I spoke of the famine in Huan
to the sound of unseemly guffaws.
I urged pity for the drunkard’s child
and the pub dissolved in merriment,
and when I described how those poor bodies
plunged off the railway bridge, all for the want
of buttresses, people nearly died laughing.
It was not the tragedy, you understand,
they were not so cruel; it was only
that I had not the gift to put it rightly.
You would not think a small matter of words
could unmake pity, would you?
Within those last two lines sit the heart of this poem, the simple and elemental distance that exists between people that must be bridged by language — and how weak that connection sometimes is. How despite our best efforts it remains an often insurmountable task to communicate our concerns and emotions. Pugh uses dramatic instances prior to these lines to highlight precisely how important these concerns can sometimes be.
It is just the incommunicable that Pugh grapples with in the painful “What Christie wrote when the child died.” She writes of the “glib grief” that passes over the death of a child by suggesting that having seen our world the child finds it “a poor exchange for heavenly bliss.” Pugh will have none of it and instead flatly states “I say that you missed the time / of your life,” further reflecting
Your hands were shaped to cup the fruit
that curved to them; your tongue was tuned
to taste the sour, the salt, the sweet;
your ears were shells where seas could sound.
For all adventure you were made;
to be anything; except dead.
The poem that most struck me in the entire collection was “Cameraman” which considers those who film the news, touching on some things maybe we’ve all thought when viewing the footage of some new catastrophe or carnage. “You must not turn your hand / to feed children, nor to caress / the dying” she writes, “You are the itch / in others; you can make them / see clear, if only you watch.” It is the supreme irony of this situation that the very nature of doing what prompts action in others is by those same people condemned for heartlessness. Yet it is only through the unflinching nature of these people that others are engaged to act at all.
Do not be tempted to turn the camera inward:
Your stricken look are no concern
Of the public’s. They need the word
On what you saw, not how
You felt. It is they who must feel
They saw it; there were there; so
Involved, they condemn somewhat
The remote likes of you.
What Pugh does, occasionally stepping over into polemical writing, though mostly staying just within the realm of good poetry, is to prick our consciences. Her sleepy old men, hooded old women begging for the bodies of their husbands, future visitors to the husk that is Earth, are portraits of ordinary people experiencing things in uncommon ways. It is the gentle cross over into the unusual that illuminates these sad figures, endowing them with a spark of hope, a faint glimmer of that better day in the first poem I quoted.