Annest Gwilym’s What the Owl Taught Me – reviewed by Rennie Halstead


What the Owl Taught Me

Lapwing Publications 2020 £11

ISBN 978-1-9163457-4-4


Annest Gwilym’s first collection is an exploration of the countryside, and especially the wildlife, in her native Wales. The book is loosely based on the tradition of a bestiary, so includes some imaginary as well as real animals. Nature is closely observed and Gwilym brings a great eye for detail to her writing, combined with some very evocative imagery.

In Crows, the opening poem, she says the birds:

            huddle like conspirators

in slick black suits

She references their sharp-eyed observation and speed at finding carrion as they:


polished as pickpockets.

Gwilym also creates a sense of the intelligence of this group of birds when she says:

            their keen eyes know that

beyond the bright cathedral

of the sky, the dark is deep.

Doorway is one of the few poems in the collection that focuses on plants, rather than animals.The observation is sharp and detailed. I love the idea that:

                        Sly fingers of ivy

creep darkly over one side

This image captures the way ivy colonises plants and fences when you are looking the other way, and suddenly the plant has made a constricting take-over bid for trees, fences, and in this case a disused doorway. Gwilym also picks up the way ivy provides a home and shelter for wildlife, here describing a butterfly as it:

prints red and black on it,

folds its wings as in prayer

In The Last Woolly Mammoth  Gwilym takes a leap of imagination to picture how the final days of the last woolly mammoth must have been. She describes the way mammoth were hunted and scavenged by stone-age man for their skins and bones, providing food, warmth and shelter. She pictures the death of the last mother mammoth:

The mother sinks into permafrost,

trumpets a final cry only he hears

The young mammoth is left alone to survive as best he can:

He keeps vigil; forages, shovels snow

for sweet grasses

Gwilym shows the other giants of the time, safe out of the reach of Man, for the moment:

Out in the bay the only other giants,

bow head whales and belugas

crest the sea like glossy grey boulders

She describes the mammoth’s death:

Alone on Wrangel Island polar night

closes round him

like a shroud.

On a different scale, Green Tiger Beetle is one of the poems in the collection that presents a picture of a small creature, one that could be so easily overlooked, and examines it in great detail:

In a marram forest sweetened by lilac trumpets

of shore convolvulus, a tiny sun-crazed tiger

lies in wait

Gwilym shows us a:

                        gaudy long legged lady,

in sea-green dress and purple stockings

The beetle is always watchful, always on the prowl. She:

scans the dunes in fearful symmetry;

still as the breath of a foxglove

When she spots her prey:

fast as fire in parched moorland

she sprints after a spider […] across crumbs

of silica and seashell.

The spider has no chance, and the poem ends as:

the six legged slayer […] grabs,

decapitates, gorges with guillotine jaws.

The Moon Hedgehog is a delightful introduction to this well-known but threatened mammal. Gwilym imagines the genesis of the animal:

One night the moon cracked open

and out he tumbled, with newborn spines

that pricked the air in their fire-beauty

She pictures his arrival on earth:

Golden tipped sea urchin, he fled

through looms of leaves fingered by spiders

and night crackling grass

The poem concludes with a close look at the hedgehog’s habits, and the ways he is so useful to gardeners:

A barn owl chafed the caverns of sleep;

all night he snuffled, snaffled slugs and worms,

blackened his lips with soft blackberries,

fell asleep at dawn drunk on moon-juice.

The last poem in the collection, There are Horses looks at the pressures and threats that the natural world faces today, particularly from the demands of planners. Gwilym opens the poem:

There are horses where they wanted houses

where the planning failed, where iron age people

once looked over the strait, their dreamless bones

now polished clean

She remembers the long tradition of early settlers, who also lived on the site, but whose homes have disappeared.:

Gone the round houses smelling of old smoke;

now ragwort, willow herb, meadowsweet prevail

Below in owl-haunted woods trees absorb

the bite of the wind that sifts through grasses

Gwilym comments on the wildlife still living on in the area:

Young hares shiver in forms as a hawk wheels

circles overhead,

The poem concludes:

the three horses and their foals,

nuzzled by sun, licked by rain. Those bright horses

of the night canter into my dreams.

This is a hugely enjoyable collection. We meet a great variety of animals, from herring gulls to bluebottles. Gwilym showcases the natural world in a most imaginative way, making us aware of the beauty that surrounds us if we only look closely, and which could so easily be under threat from development.

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