Bryn Fortey’s slim chapbook NEVER GET OUT OF THESE BLUES ALIVE puts two of his great strengths as a poet on show: beautiful evocations of the lives of his favourite blues and jazz artists, and a demonstration of what their music means in our lives. Nobody—or almost nobody—can live without music. Bryn shows you why. How it becomes, to borrow a phrase I’ve used before, the soundtrack of your experiences, and an articulation of what you feel but couldn’t possibly say without shattering into thousands of tiny fragments when life really starts to hurt.
I’m not giving anything away when I say that Bryn’s been through some things in the last few years. It’s there in the dedication page for all to see. He’s not asking for your sympathy, but like the blues singers he namechecks in the poems, he’s telling you about his good and bad times, using the lives and music of Charley Patton, John Lee Hooker, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bessie Smith (I think) and Howlin’ Wolf to provide his depth and shade. Another Welsh poet had a phrase for this sort of thing. He called it “singing in [your] chains like the sea.” Only Bryn, unlike Dylan Thomas, sings in his chains in poems infused with Beat and jazz rhythms. They’d sound wonderful read aloud.
Personal favourites of mine are moments when the poet’s autobiographical data seems to peep most clearly out from behind the romantic masks. “Marching into Glory” and “Mess of Blues”; and “City Blues”, where experience hardens the vision as it breaks the heart (“Expect to be used/ There is no other creed”). In “Night-Time Blues” sleep offers no Shakespearean escape from suffering (“A bed of no rest/ Is where I lie”) and “Dance” creates the chapbook’s best image, the people we’ve lost dancing alone in death to “a slow jazz/ Beyond blues.”
Other personal stories too painful to tell, too private to share, are hidden in different poems (I suspect): “Blues for Bessie” and “The Death of Blind Lemon Jefferson”. But there is also celebration here; music marks the highest moments of our lives as much as it consoles us in the lowest and Bryn doesn’t forget that. “Pianoman Blues”, “Hey There Blues”, “Mama Guitar” and “Mighty Wolf” are all about the music and the men and women who play it . . . and they’re informed by the poet’s tremendous knowledge of his subject. Who knew that Howlin’s Wolf was considered “Bone stupid/[…]/With an ingrained suspicion/A man who knew how to bear a grudge” (“Mighty Wolf”)?
In the 90s Bryn Fortey edited “Target”, and then he moved on to “Outlaw”, the finest small press magazine I’ve ever seen; in both he proved again and again that he’s a man who knows a good poet as well as a great Delta blues guitar player or New Orleans trumpeter. But he has always been too modest to rate himself above average as a writer. I admire his refusal to wrap himself in myth and glory—we British are suspicious of self-praise—but there are passages in this moving little book when you wonder if he hasn’t been underestimating himself all these years.