By: Shani Rhys James
Accompanied by poems by: Gillian Clarke, Pele Cox, Carol Ann Duffy, Jasmine Donahaye, Menna Elfyn, Patrick Kavanagh, Amy Wack
‘Florilingua’ could have easily been a disconnected maze of paintings and poems. Yet it is much more than that. It is a story: a haunting tale of claustrophobia, and bedsits, and trapped female figures.
Expressive paintings of something as seemingly mundane as wallpaper are hard to pull off; yet Shani Rhys James’ thick layers of paint somehow get into the viewer’s head. Somewhere within the flowers and baths, wallpaper and crying women is a desperate message. It is a desperate message concealed with the mystery that naturally goes with words and paint.
The world that Rhys James and the poets present is purely female. However it certainly isn’t a celebration of femininity. Instead the women depicted look mournful. Their eyes are clouded forever with tears; and their pupils are so wide that they could be stoned. They are also not obviously women: they demand the viewer to look carefully in order to recognise gender. Although the face shape is right for women and girls, the hair is cropped short. None of the clothed figures have recognisable, breast-like lumps. What the figures are so desperately sad about is not immediately tangible either. They seem to be looking at something beyond the viewer. Maybe at a world they are ashamed of being part of? Maybe something has frightened them?
The only time that the women in both the paintings and the poems seem settled is when they are in the bath. The bath seems to symbolise a place without pressures. A place where a woman can lock the door, and be absent from the stresses of the world, at least until the water grows cold. Menna Elfyn describes the bath (in her poem ‘Bath’) as: ”My contented cell/My tiny cradle”. The poem makes reference to the trap that having children can be to women. Later she states “I submerge into tranquillity”, on the surface this description seems pleasant, yet it is eerily reminiscent of someone walking into the sea in order to kill themselves.
The collection ends abruptly with a Carol Ann Duffy poem and one of Shani Rhys James’ most impressive paintings. The painting is called ‘Small Head II’ and depicts a close-up of a girl’s face. Having such a powerful image accompanying an equally powerful last poem, leaves the viewer with a haunted feeling that reflects what the rest of the book is trying to express. The feeling that there is something wrong with society.