Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Hannah and the Monk by Julia Bird

David Briggs on Hannah and the Monk by Julia Bird (Salt, 2008)

Julia Bird’s first collection excavates folk legend, urban myth, idiom and popular culture with sharp-edged tools. The book opens with an apologia for the urban myth that

“every breath you or I or anybody takes
contains a single molecule of air
expired with Caesar’s dying words”;

an argument that succeeds not by logic, but through charm, wit and the seductive power of precise language. Like Donne’s exaggerated claims for his flea, Bird’s wit and sensuality draw you into a world where “hoping it might be so” becomes “an article of faith”. A similar concern with the what-ifs and just-supposes of contemporary culture – the notion that the world’s population might fit on the Isle of Wight, coded messages over the tannoy in public spaces, and the strange power of the passport-photo booth – lead to playful explorations that avoid spinning off into whimsy, pegged down as they are by some weighty lines. The man with the clipboard who checks the world and his wife through Portsmouth docks sits, his face set toward the needles, while “the world hangs hollow at his back”. And when a jaded usherette reveals the theatre’s code for a fire, Bird visualises the scene in the dressing-room with startling clarity:

“… the lit ciggie set too close to the spirit gum
for the second act moustache.

Their dialogue. The two beat breath

and the sticky flame which treacles off the table

and into a wicker skip
of doublets, hose and tennis whites,
how it rhubarbs to itself a while then roars –

the heat so fast and loud it blows the light bulbs
round the mirror, one after the other,
a pyrotechnic chorus line of pop and shatter.”

Bird is equally intrigued by language and idiom as by urban myth, with several poems making use of a range of Englishes. A poem about hunger, ‘Monoglutton’, is spiced with idioms from French, Welsh, Hungarian, and British Sign Language. Two poems provide translations of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116 and T S Eliot’s ‘Preludes 1’ using the vocabulary of the fridge magnet poetry kit:

“Let me not to the boy-girl-melt of good selfs
Say die.”

And, the final poem of the collection re-writes the picture book for modern babies using the soundscape of London:

“And what’s that sound from the underground?
It’s the tube trains calling ‘Minda GAP …

And what about this great-grandfather clock?
He’s chiming Heerizda NEWS
Bong Bong – Heerizda NEWS.”

The ludic irreverence continues in the games Bird plays with poetic form. A sequence of prose-poems provide a series of ‘Short Films’, the aforementioned poem about the passport-photo booth uses shape to evoke the required sense of claustrophobic framing; there are Lumsdenesque sevenlings, sonnets and a great deal of inventive ‘free verse’ throughout. Everywhere I turned I found form wedded to theme in a range of inventive ways that brought imagery to the foreground.

And Bird’s sharp eye creates some stunning images. I loved the bold assertion at the end of ‘Your Grandfather Would have Wanted You to Have This’, and the image of a Jim’ll Fix It devotee receiving from his idiosyncratic patron a chandelier that

“swung in the room all the wrong scale,
like ladies’ earrings on a little girl”

is a charming evocation of the bathos that characterised that particular show. The subjects are eclectic, but reading this book is to be charmed by a poetic imagination that transforms everything it touches. This is a witty and inventive book, its face set against the detritus of contemporary British culture.

* David Briggs' first collection The Method Men is forthcoming from Salt

Suit of Lights by Damian Walford Davies

Dai George on Suit of Lights by Damian Walford Davies (Seren, 2009)

In ‘Kilvert’, a sequence of twelve short poems inspired by the journal of a nineteenth century Welsh clergyman, Damian Walford Davies describes a bumblebee crawling over an altar cloth as ‘Tiger- / striped furzeball, louche / half-ounce of real / presence’. He then confesses to ‘half wishing / it would sting / through each faint / dress.’ Perhaps the Reverend Kilvert, perhaps Walford Davies himself, the voice of the poem relishes disturbance and harm, viewing the bumblebee as a near-literal gadfly come to shake up the complacent congregation.

Compare this with the opening poem of the volume, ‘Bee’, in which we find the title insect ‘humbled, downed, its body // pulsing on the gravel’. Not only has the bee itself been rendered touchingly innocuous, but the attitude of the speaker has altered. In place of the titillated fear of ‘Kilvert’, ‘Bee’ remembers being caught out by a moment of compassion, in which the speaker wrestles with whether he ‘should / have opened up and let her in’. The swift, almost imperceptible change from ‘it’ to ‘her’ invites a wider allegorical reading: that the poem is about overcoming phobias and mistrust in human relationships.

Geoffrey Hill famously characterized poetry as a struggle between ‘menace’ and ‘atonement’. Although he doesn’t engage with the intricacies of Hill’s argument, or the idiosyncratic shades of meaning that Hill teases out of his key concepts, Walford Davies has a sound understanding of these polarities in their colloquial sense. In the crudest but most affecting fashion, the bee is deployed at different times to be a harbinger of menace and a symbol of atonement, as something that has the power to terrorize and a pitiable object of empathy.

But Walford Davies has other, subtler modes of understanding Hill’s dialectic, suggested by his terrific phrase ‘The threat of foliage’ (‘Composite’). What’s alluring or lovely can always be rendered ominous with a trick of the language, a skewing of emphasis. And, like Hill, Walford Davies’s poetry draws a charge from acknowledging language’s tendency to finesse cruelty and commit callous indiscretions. Early in the volume, we encounter a loose progression of monologues, several of them inspired by specific historical situations, most of them giving colourful voice to a range of charlatans and egotists. So ‘Iconoclast’ brings us William Dowsing, a Protestant zealot charged with stripping Catholic churches, who provides an unctuous inventory of his pillaging:

Seven friars

at Sudbury St James, clinching

a nun. My Meat is Flesh indeed,

and My Blood is Drink, indeed.

The repetition of ‘indeed’ nudges the word from divine affirmation to a very human cocked eyebrow, demonstrating how much can turn on a tasteless common usage.

Unusually for a poet so involved in parody and destabilization, Walford Davies has no problem with sometimes playing it, as far as I can tell, straight. ‘Groundsman’ is a quiet tribute, containing the beautifully tender description of the title figure ‘botanising at silly- / mid-on’. With poems such as these, one can detect the softer influence of Walford Davies’s contemporary and compatriot Owen Sheers, whose latest volume, Skirrid Hill, is brought to mind by the fine honeymoon poem ‘Duomo’. Unfortunately, the Italian theme is carried through less well in ‘Chopping Board’, a poem that commemorates a piece of souvenir kitchenware bought in the Tuscan hill town San Gimignano. For the most part of this excellent debut collection, such inconsequentiality would not be allowed to pass without strong irony and interrogation.

* Dai George is studying for an MFA at Columbia University.