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:
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.