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Review: Sad Giraffe Café, by Richard Gwyn

The most truthful of blurbs can set up misleading echoes. 'Sad Giraffe Café is a collection of prose poems'. I have often had to force myself to read prose poems. But I read Richard Gwyn's book at one sitting, enthralled.

Nettles are best grasped quickly. What distinguishes prose poems as a form? Poems, I believe, work through intensity. Vision is trapped - like a fish - in a net of countless verbal tricks. It thrashes and gleams but cannot breathe for long. It would barely survive for a paragraph in the very different element of sustained prose.

Prose poems must be short because they, too, work with an intensity which would deafen the reader's inner ear. Gwyn's first piece begins tersely: The acrobats were packing up the show. Then the story somersaults. I had been hiding, remarks the narrator, in an old shoe. And what is in the acrobats' rucksack? It seemed to shudder and breathe, and made the sound that a thousand starlings make every autumn evening in a certain coastal town in another country. This is beautiful writing. Exact in rhythm, expansive in scope, it deserves the white page space around it: the mind's breathing space.

Gwyn's stories move across distinct territories. The earliest, though set in distant or mythic societies, are sharply familiar in their references to curfews and informers. The absurdity of laws criminalising dreams containing [..] (a ) elephants (b) dangerous reptiles invades the reader's mind, irresistible and troubling as dreams (or poetry). Though Gwyn has forsaken the easy memorability of rhyme and verse, he is a master of echoing endings and startling openings: There they are again, those horses!

This swift herd of prose poems can shift subject as drastically as a collection of poems. Sparta melts into Portobello Road. Kings are upstaged by estate agents. But Gwyn is in control. Final sentences hook back the reader's attention: I picked up my gun [...]

Female characters begin to flit through these shape-changing stories. I was least impressed by Alice, whose unrepentant jubilation recalls the tedious resilience of a video game heroine. But I was suitably haunted by Miranda, first encountered in a supermarket, stocking her spotless flat, then seen (by Alice) with thick tubers sprouting rapidly from her face, her arms, her breasts. Gwyn can interweave his narratives like the tubers. The sinister political stories of the opening recur: Singers had been disappearing [..]. Alice hums a line from The Sound of Music. There was a hammering at the door.

Why do these quickfire narratives work so well? Partly, I think, because they reach out in two directions: to private life with its warm detail, and to history. As the characters pad through war zones, they reach Flanders, and two corporals. The first is the narrator's Welsh grandfather, whom he calls 'Taid'. 'One will become a mining engineer in Machynlleth; the other will try his hand at painting.' This episode comes close to the end of the collection. Allusive as a poem, the story slips into the reader's own memory to write its ending. The name of the second corporal is Hitler.

I think the title of the Sad Giraffe Café undervalues it, suggesting a merely decorative surrealism. Gwyn's stories reach deep, as his final piece truly suggests, replenishing ourselves. Odysseus returns. Inside him he carries the country of song.