An Interview with Hilary Davies

In January this year, I posted a review of Hilary Davies’ powerful new collection, Exile and the Kingdom. In what follows, she has been kind enough to answer a few questions which presented themselves as I read the book. In her replies, Davies ranges across poetic influence, the importance to her work of a European perspective, the question of structuring a poetry collection, the relation between the spiritual and the everyday, and the difficulty of writing about grief and loss.

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MC: Could you say a little about the significance of the title of the book, Exile and the Kingdom?

HD: Exile and the Kingdom treats of preoccupations that have been with me all my life.  The collection consists of five distinct but interrelated sequences which all have to do with pilgrimage in some way. Our pilgrimage through life is in a very real sense an exile but how we approach it, are changed by it and by those we meet and love is also how we may approach the kingdom.

MC: The book’s five parts have a clear structure and I found myself wondering how that architectural ordering of poems came about and how it related to the chronological sequence of their being written.

HD: Since my first book of poems, The Shanghai Owner of the Bonsai Shop, back in 1991, I have written in all my collections in sequences. This is because I found that discrete lyrics, unconnected to any wider context, were no longer sufficient by themselves to allow me to address the themes I wanted to address. I began to think in terms of a broader architectonic for the poems I wanted to write: each time I have embarked on new subject matter, I have sought a scaffolding, a framework, to give my work the reach I felt my chosen topic needed. Sometimes these have been quite simple, sometimes very complex, requiring a great deal of research in a dizzying variety of areas. This research has been an integral part of the poetic voyage and creative process for me over the years, and I find it exciting and exhilarating.

Exile and the Kingdom is no exception. The eponymous section comes last. It was, however, actually the first to be written.  Finding this particular theme took a long time, over a year; the title, much longer. There were several false starts and considerable frustration. This was in part the normal consequence of having just published my third collection, Imperium. At such moments, there is always a period, first, of satisfaction and repletion, then an insidious feeling of lack of purpose, then increasing anxiety that you may never be able to do it again.

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MC: The use of the liturgical ‘hours’ as the structuring device in the concluding ‘Exile and the Kingdom’ sequence is very powerful. Is this something that formed part of your original thinking about the sequence or a later ‘addition’ that seemed right?

HD: I knew I wanted to write something about the stages in my spiritual life up till then, including my conversion to Catholicism, but couldn’t see how to do it. Slowly, I discovered a structure: the liturgical hours or divine office.  These are amongst the very oldest of Christian prayers, dating back to the time of the apostles and influenced by Jewish practice. They were incorporated, in altered form, into Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer and are consequently familiar to Anglicans the world over, in, for example, evensong; they are still observed in monastic communities and in both the Eastern and Catholic churches. What was especially interesting to me was their symbolism, which is a dual one. They mark out the day and the night, and are thus associated with different states of the soul, different spiritual aspirations, different signposts on the journey of life. Traditionally, they have also been attached to different texts in the New Testament, something of which I was not aware initially and which became part of the quest, to see how these passages related to events in my own life. They did, of course, as all great religious texts do, because part of their aim is to explain ourselves and the forces that we encounter to us.

MC: The closeness of the spiritual to the everyday seems to be one of the points of the book’s second sequence, ‘Songs from the Lea Valley’ which strikes a very different note, more personal, urban and multicultural.

HD: My home for the last 25 years has been the Lea valley, on the eastern edge of London. It is of huge importance to the history of the city, and yet remains unknown to many inhabitants in spite of being chosen for the site of the Olympic park in 2012.  In order to celebrate it, I began writing occasional lyrics over a period of years, evoking the river, marshlands, the city, those who have lived here and given it its character way back even into the Stone Age.  It is a hugely cosmopolitan place – more languages are spoken in my constituency than anywhere else in Europe – and that spirit of ‘live and let live’, the melting pot of cultures and the vibrant atmosphere it creates, is what I wanted to convey in the poem ‘In Abney Park’. This is a 19th century cemetery in Stoke Newington, now a nature reserve beloved of walkers and mothers with babies. It is peopled with mourning angels, as was the custom of the time, but lies only yards from the bustle of Ermine Street, the great Roman road north to York, along which the trade and armies of empire have been travelling for two millennia.

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Abney Park, Stoke Newington, north London

MC: Throughout the book you make use of two quite distinctive poetic styles. One is a more discursive, even philosophical, free style of unrhymed verse; the other is more formal and lyrical. Are they contrasting or complementary?

HD: The question of styles emerged really from the differing subject matters. The personal poems naturally spoke in a lyric voice, the longer sequences do mirror the fact I am trying to reflect on larger historical and philosophical themes

MC: In that variety of poetic voice, I seem to hear the influence of writers like T.S. Eliot, David Jones, even George Herbert. Which predecessors do you look to when you write, or perhaps which predecessors do you try to circumvent?

HD: I don’t consciously look to any poets when I am writing, which of course is not to say I am not influenced by certain writers, as we all are. But these influences hopefully have become fully digested in a mature style.  I have been influenced by and admire the poetry of Jones, Herbert, Eliot, Donne, Traherne, Vaughan, Yeats, Dickinson, Hopkins, Patrick Kavanaugh, W.S. Graham, David Gascoyne, George Barker.  But also Baudelaire, Apollinaire, Verlaine, Rilke, Jean Follain, Hofmannsthal, Goethe, Lorca. And others no doubt that temporarily escape my mind.  These are for wildly different reasons and sometimes as much for subject matter as prosody.

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MC: Your love of the landscape and culture of France and Germany comes through powerfully in the book. Do you see yourself as an British poet who travels, or a European poet who lives in the UK?

HD: I first crossed the Channel at the age of fifteen, at a time when Britain was negotiating its entry into the Common Market. In those less blasé times, the land on the other side seemed unimaginably exotic and profoundly exciting. Two years later I went to Germany, West Germany as it then was – a tiny difference in nomenclature that encapsulated the catastrophe of the 20th century.  These visits changed the course of my life: I went on to read French and German at university, and to earn my living teaching these languages and cultures for over thirty years while pursuing my writing as a poet.

This means I am a committed European. I have lived in Paris and spent over 20 summers in France. I have written poems about the 12th century lovers and thinkers, Abelard and Héloïse, and poems set in the great Paleolithic landscapes of the Dordogne and the Vézère: I have charted the spiritual pilgrimage that began for me in Poitiers and the Marais in Paris.

MC: So that sense of connectedness to the European mainland and its cultures has been important to you for a very long time?

HD:  The theme of interconnectedness, of the richness that the admixture of peoples brings, was the major inspiration behind the fourth section of the collection, ‘Rhine Fugue’.  This was an ambitious project which required a great deal of research over 5 years. France and Germany are part of my psyche and part of my heritage as a European.  They have also, as we notoriously know, been for many centuries alternately brothers and enemies, and the Rhine is the great watercourse that both unites and divides them.

The notion of fugue was suggested to me by the fact that Beethoven was born on the banks of the river in Bonn; the contrapuntal nature of this musical form exactly fits the interweaving, recapitulations and reversals of the history of the Rhine.  I wrote the poem in seven overlapping and yet distinctive sections, drawing on my own experiences with the kindness of strangers as a teenager; the Prussian general Blücher’s crossing of the Rhine in the cold dead of night to go and help Wellington at Waterloo; evocations of the benign influence of the river in different French and German locations; the rich Jewish Ashkenazim tradition during the Middle Ages in Worms; William Tyndale’s publication of his world-changing English translation of the New Testament while in exile, also in Worms; Beethoven as a exemplar of man’s attempts to reach the spiritual world through music and, finally, a return to the Rhine as a symbol of the need for cohesion and friendship in Europe, and what happens when we don’t have that.

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Blucher crossing the Rhine

When I began this poem, it seemed like a rather private concern of mine that might have little resonance with my readership; in 2017, it has all the urgency of a warning against a not so benign return to the nationalisms and wars of the past,

MC:  This is where we wish poetry had a wider and more powerful reach! You catch that admonitory sense so well in the lines: “O the melancholy of broken-backed bridges! / For razed cities never gave garlands.”  

HD:  At the height of the Second World War, two men from Rhenish backgrounds, Robert Schuman, a Frenchman of German and Luxemburg origin, and Konrad Adenauer, former mayor of Cologne, were both in hiding from the Nazis. Independently, and later together, influenced by the Christian democratic thinking of Jacques Maritain, they conceived of a post-war Europe transformed and redeemed by reconciliation and co-operation. Their vision underlies the European project and the peace that has obtained in Europe for the last 70 years. It is the Europe that I grew up in and which has sustained me poetically and professionally all my life.

MC: Despite a number of ‘in memoriam’ poems, it struck me that this was a book as much about love as grief. Did the book grew organically in that direction or was there something more willed about it?

HD: Yes, the poems were about grief, its extreme and shocking impact, but also about how in the end love overcomes this. But ‘overcomes’ makes it sound trite. It is a much more subtle, protracted and painful process than this in reality, and actually one that goes on for the rest of your life. I know this now because in the summer of 2013, my husband, the poet and editor Sebastian Barker, was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and given three months to live.

In fact, he lived another seven; he also lived to see his last and best collection, The Land of Gold (Enitharmon, 2014), reach publication. It contains his farewell to life, to love, his family, to the landscapes he loved in France and Greece. It contains his last and most profound statement about hope and faith, from which he gave a reading in Cambridge two days before he died.  This journey is one he had begun many years earlier but one which I had gone with him, in marriage, poetically and spiritually. His death provoked profound grief and a sudden and violent realignment of everything in my life that had seemed so certain. I have described it as ‘severe growth’: growth that was not sought for nor wanted, but which came upon me just the same.  I am still discovering what this means.  The central sequence of the book is about the loss, confusion, terror and celebration that the death of one we love occasions.  ‘Lympne Hill’ is a memory of looking out over the huge panorama at Lympne on the south coast towards Romney Marsh and the sea, where my husband seemed to touch, just for a moment, heaven. It is my thanksgiving to him.

 

You turn towards me, burning and happy,

That boy running the clouds over and over

Pell-mell into the hollows, this man

In his years reaching with all his might

Far out on life’s cantilever to touch his soul’s blue.

 

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Whitesands Bay, near St Davids

MC: The final poem of the collection is set at St Davids in Wales. You seem to be responding partly to the bleakness of the landscape. What streams of thought and experience seem to be coalescing there?

HD: That poem came out of a visit I made there at Christmas 2007, not the first by any means, as I am half Welsh. By chance we met a friend there who was visiting her very devout, sweet and Catholic mother, sitting in her ‘ragged kitchen’, and the friend then took us to St. Non’s Chapel, which is right out on a promontory exposed to the sea. Its situation struck me very much. The dusk came down in a very clear sky, with that indigo you get in winter twilight. And I was very conscious of the geology of that part of the world. Some of the oldest rocks in the world are exposed near St. David’s. Pre-Cambrian, pre-life on land, 620 million years old estimated. Hence the reference to the ‘oldlands’ where the human presence is compared to a baby in its mother’s arms.  At Whitesands Bay, near St. David’s, the shales are Cambrian and the rounded domes you see at the top are characteristic of those very old rocks.

I also remember I had Stanley Spencer’s painting of ‘Christ Carrying the Cross’ in mind in writing the line ‘The saints lean from her windows against the night’. And the final line – the concluding line of the whole collection – is from the liturgy of Compline: ‘God grant us a quiet night and a perfect end’. But the whole poem is shot through with liturgical references as is, of course, the whole sequence.

 

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Stanley Spencer, ‘Christ Carrying the Cross’

 

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Stand-to-Arms: David Jones’ ‘In Parenthesis’ (1937)

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There’s an extraordinary moment in the final pages of David Jones’ magnificent poem-novella, In Parenthesis (1937), when his hero, John Ball, dying at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, imagines the tourist industry that has since grown up around the World War One battlefields. In his last moments, he abandons his rifle: “leave it for a Cook’s tourist to the Devastated Areas”. Jones’ footnote acknowledges the risk of this sounding anachronistic but insists he remembers such discussions among the soldiers, how holiday-makers will later be photographed “on our parapets”. It’s the unexpected sense of territorial ownership that makes him angry (not the sense of injustice at different lives unfolding so differently): he compares it to strangers “occupying a house you live in, and which has, for you, particular associations”.

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This searing, revelatory sense of the documentary – what it was like to be there – is just one of the reasons to read Jones’ book. Another extended footnote considers the multiple usage of the hessian material of sandbags. In their intended role “they constituted, filled with earth, the walls, ceiling, and even floor surface of half our world”. But it was also “utilized as a wrapping for food; for a protection to the working parts of a rifle, and cover for bayonet against rust. The firm, smooth contour of a steel-helmet was often deprived of its tell-tale brightness [. . .] by means of a piece of stitched-on sack-cloth. The sand bag could be cut open and cast over the shoulders against the weather or tied round the legs against the mud or spread as a linen cloth on the fire-step for a meal, or used in extremity as a towel or dish-cloth; could be bound firmly as an improvised bandage or sewn together as a shroud for the dead”. Such human and humane improvisation in the midst of nightmare reminds us that Jones did not intend In Parenthesis to be a “War Book”, but rather one about a “good kind of peace”. He himself gives us another reason to read his book in these contemporary times that we consider so ‘difficult’: “We find ourselves privates in foot regiments. We search how we may see formal goodness in a life singularly inimical, hateful, to us”.

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For those interested in poetic techniques, Jones mixes prose and verse as naturally as walking and running. He is fiercely allusive throughout, particularly drawing on Shakespeare, Malory, The Mabinogion, The Song of Roland, other Welsh and Anglo-Saxon poems, Romantic and Classical poetry. TS Eliot tends to use his intertextual or allusive techniques forensically to dissect our Modern condition, how far we fall short of heroism, how far we are from spiritual pilgrimage, how sordid and smutty our lives have become. Curiously, Jones achieves something opposite, managing to elevate his fallible, cursing Tommies to some sort of reflection of the heroism of the past. The fields of northern France are compared to Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur in ways that establish rather than sever the links between myth and legend and the twentieth century. Bursts of shrapnel are associated with “the Thunder God” as discussed in Fraser’s The Golden Bough; the death of soldiers is rhymed with the myth of the king buried to protect and make the land fruitful. Jones’ interest in and identification with the ordinary soldiers is also expressed through his use of their words, in vivid, direct, often (knowingly) hilarious forms of demotic which put Eliot’s awkward efforts at doing the ordinary people’s voices into the shade.

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For a certain type of soldier, Jones tells us, trench life in 1916 with the “infantry in tin-hats, with ground-sheets over their shoulders, with sharpened pine-stakes in their hands”, brought Shakespeare’s Henry V “pretty constantly to the mind”. It’s from that play that one of the recurring phrases in In Parenthesis is drawn. In Part 3, Lance-Corporal Lewis sings as he walks, yet he sings softly, “because of the Disciplines of War”. Jones’ soldiers treat the idea with both respect and sarcasm on differing occasions though it’s striking that in the midst of battle, as things begin to turn against them:

 

Captain Cadwaladr restores

the Excellent Disciplines of the Wars.

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The book invites the reader in with knockabout drill on the parade ground at home to begin with. Then a long march to the port of embarkation, the troops looking smart as they march through town but once beyond civilian observation “with a depressing raggedness of movement and rankling of tempers they covered another mile between dismal sheds, high and tarred”. Proleptic of what lies ahead, they get lost among the port buildings, eventually waiting for departure to France in a “spacious shed [. . .] open at either end, windy and comfortless”.

Part 2 has the men marching through France, Jones capturing their first naïve witnessing of war’s destruction where a shell has fallen on the road they are pursuing: “men were busy here shovelling rubble into a great torn upheaval in the paving. A splintered tree scattered its winter limbs, spilled its life low on the ground. They stepped over its branches and went on”. One of the great themes of In Parenthesis ironically is the presence of Nature, often offering some consolation, some mythic pattern of life, death and re-birth to the soldiers, as well as (here) being subject to the destructions of human warfare. The natural processes of time, night and day, the seasons turning – also offer some consolation. Here is the magnificent opening to Part 4, John Ball seeing dawn break over the trenches:

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So thus he sorrowed till it was day and heard the foules sing, then somewhat he was comforted.

 

Stand-to.

Stand-to-arms.

Stealthily, imperceptibly stript back, thinning

night wraps

unshrouding, unsheafing—

and insubstantial barriers dissolve.

This blind night-negative yields uncertain flux.

At your wrist the phosphorescent dial describes the equal seconds.

 

The flux yields up a measurable body; bleached forms emerge and stand.

 

Where their faces turned, grey wealed earth bared almost of last clung weeds of night weft—

behind them the stars still shined.

 

The final seventh Part breaks more consistently into verse. Jones seldom uses line breaks to create the swaying rhythmic units of lyric verse but more usually for disjunction. His free verse recreates the soldier’s eye swinging from one thing to another, often in panic and confusion, the sudden bursting of danger from left field, from shells above, mines below. It allows him also to recreate the thrilling illogic of the stream of consciousness of his fighting men. Private Ball survives longer than many but is eventually wounded.

 

[. . .] it came as if a rigid beam of great weight flailed about his calves, caught from behind by ballista-baulk let fly or aft-beam slewed to clout gunnel-walker

below below below.

 

When golden vanities make about,

you’ve got no legs to stand on.

 

He thought it disproportionate in its violence considering the fragility of us.

 

He crawls away, encumbered by the weight of his rifle which he eventually leaves behind. An Ophelia-like figure, the Queen of the Woods, cuts garlands for the dying soldiers, whispering quietly to each of them, according respect (when the real circumstances of their deaths received anything but) elevating their passing to ritual. (Here is a brief animation and reading of this moment). That Jones can achieve this mythic sense, simultaneously dwelling on the clumsy encumbrance of Private Ball’s rifle, and allowing his fleeting thoughts about the future Cook’s tourists is a breath-taking moment of literary achievement. The whole is “a work of genius” (TS Eliot) and “a masterpiece” (WH Auden). For Adam Thorpe it “towers above any other prose or verse memorial of that war (indeed, of any war)”; for Thomas Dilworth it is “probably the greatest work of British Modernism written between the wars”.

 

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David Jones

 

I have been reading little other than In Parenthesis for the last few weeks. The narrative precision clarifies with each re-reading, as does the characterisation, the recurring motifs become more significant, the gem-like passages of exquisite poetry leap out. I have come to it very late; a reason for some regret but it is the best thing I have read in years. Perhaps the title put me off. It sounds arid and a bit tricksy. Jones suggests the parenthesis was the war itself (perhaps again indicating his real concern with how we live our peace), though he also cryptically adds “because our curious type of existence here is altogether in parenthesis”. The whole work concludes with lines taken from The Song of Roland: “the man who does not know this has not understood anything”.