Mamiath by Ness Owen – A Review

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This lovely first collection by Ness Owen, published by Arachne Press, is a meditation on place, customs, values, the importance of culture, language and home, motherhood, and what it means to be attached to one’s roots. This is a skillful poet who employs minimalism, quietude, and a deftness in language choices to communicate patriotism, defiance, and the importance of self-worth. ‘Mamiath’ (meaning ‘mother tongue’) is also partly bilingual – for a non Welsh speaker with absolutely no understanding or background in the language, it proved rather fascinating to see it aligned with its English counterpart.

What struck me about Ness Owens’s work was the use of imagery; often deeply poetic, but also contemporary. In ‘Willows’ she speaks beautifully of planting a tree “for her we / lost whose name we only / whispered to the sea-wind.” This is a seaside girl, and her poems are often firmly rooted in coastal coves where you can smell salt water as you read.

In ‘Laboon’ (meaning tsunami in the language of the nomadic Moken people of Thailand), Owen speaks of the importance of stories passing through generations as a means of learning: “Old stories tell us / run for the mountains / row for deep water”, since “the wave is hungry again”. This was one of my favourite poems in the collection because it speaks to history; “our stories will save us”, she says… “If there is no one / to tell our stories / how will we prepare?” After all, isn’t the job of an artist to tell the stories of their time? Inform as well as expand minds?

This is a poet with concern to cajole a reader. In ‘The Meeting’, Owen suggests “you can sit and fester / watch scales of anger / burst through your skin / or the door is open / can you still walk?” A call to arms for those uninspired, or on the rat race wheel, or wrapped up in unhealthy, polluted notions and habits, maybe? In ‘Stand your Ground’ Owen encourages us to “forgive everyone / give up, give in / let go”, culminating in advice I can testify works: “write and dance / and write and dance”. in ‘Kiss (Dancefloor Dignity)’, Owen says “I don’t like being called a bird”, and why should she? There is a resilience and underlying strength in the voice of this poet; she is going to rouse, stand-up, raise awareness, do her bit.

Aside from the messages embedded, there is some beautiful poetry in here. In ‘No-one is Watching’ Owen writes: “The tired tick of / the unwatched clock / shakes the cobwebs / fools the spider that / supper is near”… a wonderfully crafted image that certainly isn’t unusual in this collection. Metaphors are abundant, such as the charting of a Buzzard’s flight in ‘Buzzard’: “perfectly powerless / to a mob of ravens / who would force / her to the ground” – a suggestion that we are all, particularly women, trying to find ways to fly without being ripped from the skies. Similarly, in ‘Female Blackbird Sings’, the activist within this poet raises a very valid concern about equality, or lack of, over the generations: “Your song isn’t / as loud as his / born knowing you’ll / have to try harder.”

Ness Owen, like many other folk around the world living in a place where local dialect is slowly disappearing, has great concerns for her native tongue, or Mamiaith. She speaks of “finding a voice that / is ours to reclaim” in ‘One Name – Cymru’ (meaning Wales, of course), and, maybe sardonically, laments that “Tongue-tied / excusing our way through / we breathe in Mamiaith / waiting to be unearthed / always knowing our / pen will betray us”. To communicate is to write in English, so it seems, yet this seems like it is robbing the mother tongue of her voice. Or maybe this is her own lament at never learning to master writing in her mother tongue? All poets ruminate, after all.

Only a poet could write “He says we’re all normal / in our own way and who / wants to be normal anyway”, and “labels (he says) / make life easier for every- / one else” (‘Counting’). Whoever this ‘he’ is represents the societal machine that we are churned up in every day, and the poet’s job is to lift us out of that monotony to taste life in a slightly different way; find meaning and experience through different eyes and alternative perspectives. Ness Owen wants to be heard, and taken seriously; “Nothing changes / same shit, just another year / corruption everywhere” she says with angst in ‘Shut Up’, before announcing “nobody’s listening so I got / to get louder, start shouting”. It’s a departure from the wealth of subtlety throughout, but welcome all the same.

‘Mamiaith’ certainly got my attention. For those interested in contemporary narrative poetry with a strong sense of place and belonging, this is a fine read.

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