The River Unreeling Warbler Song | Poetry Review: Paul Chambers Latitudes

So much of Welsh literary culture seems to revolve around the continued revival of the Welsh language and it’s increasing primacy in official circles. It makes reading this collection of haiku from Paul Chambers refreshing. Chambers, in addition to his work as a poet, is involved in the establishment of a Welsh haiku journal, supported by the Wales Arts Review.

Here, at a time when language and national border mentalities are at their peak in the United Kingdom we have a Welsh poet, writing in English, through a traditionally Japanese form, about a road trip across the United States. As an example of engagement with the world beyond, Chambers’ second collection, Latitudes, shows the possibility for good writing that is Welsh without it having to rely either upon the Welsh language or indeed upon “Welsh” themes.

Chambers has made no secret of the fact that this book has a strong influence from Jack Kerouac, though it is the softer, spiritual side of Kerouac’s writing rather than the hedonism of On the Road to which Chambers’ writing is indebted. Invoking Kerouac as an influence can be risky, given that many see his and the work of many the Beats in general, to have been little more than artfully crafted but artless works that have done more harm than good in counteracting the Romantic ideas of what the writer’s life should look like. [perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]But this is no drinking session dressed up as a search for the self.[/perfectpullquote]


The road trip as metaphor might well land accusations of a lack of originality in the writers’ thinking. It is too easy perhaps to imagine a kind of self-parodic cosplay at work. Playing at being lost & finding one’s self out there, on the road, as it were.

Fortunately Chambers’ poems eschew the worst excesses of this understanding of the journey. Instead of a narrative driven from place to place we get snatches of images like this one:

mist after rain

the river unreeling

warbler song (10)

Or, later in the collection:

the strain

of the mooring line

thinning moon (72)

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]As the poems are a string of haiku with no titles, it’s possible to breeze through the book in a short space of time. But the collection bears repeated readings to notice the recurrence of images like cicadas, car radios, moons, plovers, oystercatchers and more besides.[/perfectpullquote]

The poems sit, centred, in the white expanse of the A5 pages. After a while you can start to read across the facing pages and concoct new poems almost from the running lines. Every word of the poems are lower case, indicating neither a beginning nor an end.

Equally there are few if any punctuation marks throughout. This propels the reader along but it can also occasionally make one feel like you are only skimming over the surface of these poems. Slower more deliberate reading is more fruitful. However, for this reviewer, a few haiku in particular jar. People are present in the poems – cast often in the role of lovers – but they seem more symbolic than real. It is unclear from the poems if it Chambers is dealing with one or else several lovers:

almond blossom

the stillness

after love (9)

Is followed in short order a few pages later by

love made…

dusk rain falling

on the skylight (14)

april daybreak

your impression still

in the pillow (15)

Soon after we have

spring heat –

the imprint of grass

in her thighs (20)


cicada plainsong

the sweat pooling

in her navel (30)

It may well be intentional, it may even by stylistic, but it gives some of the poems a curiously impersonal air. Women are represented but appear to have no agency in these poems. It is perhaps the least palatable legacy of the Beats influence on literature and it has found its way into some of these poems. This is a pity only because elsewhere Chambers shows himself a fine writer in the haiku form with a good eye for their juxtapositional potential in the varied landscape of America and he makes great use of this throughout Latitudes.

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Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash