With my new collection just out from Seren Books, I’m happy to have a number of promotional events and readings coming up over the next couple of months. I love the business of giving a reading, but there’s often a moment that arises that makes me uneasy as to how to how to respond. It’s the question of influence; the hand going up to ask: what other poets do you consider to have been an influence on your own poems?
It’s my problem I’m sure, but I’ve always had two ludicrously extreme responses spring to mind on hearing the question. Firstly, to list pretty much every single poet I’ve read in the last 40 years because the truth is every single one has added a grain, a pebble (for better or worse) to the path I walk to write a poem. Alternatively, since I can’t think of one, or even two, clear contenders for powerful influence when I sit down at a blank page or screen, it must be that I have emerged ex nihilo, a peculiar original. The first would be a lengthy reply of little use or interest; the second would seem positively dripping with arrogance (and equally of little use or interest).
Actually, I can think of a third answer: it’s not for the poet to identify influences; it’s a job for a reader. But I wanted to use the next two posts to kick the idea of influence around, to sort out my own ideas and to answer it in two ways. Early in a writing career, the revelation of, or encounter with, a new voice, style, or even subject area can lead to great lurching changes of direction in a poet’s own work. The lurch or swerve becomes progressively less marked the older a poet gets. Put that down to a more confident self belief perhaps, or to a growing inertia, or a more sophisticated process of absorption of such novelty, or sheer bloody mindedness . . .
For me, I started in the business convinced that I was composing song lyrics because poetry as such was not a familiar thing – except in occasional English classes at school and I dropped that subject at the age of 16. As I’ve said elsewhere, science was what I did through most of my teens. With too much time on my hands and too little joy to be found elsewhere, in the mid 1970s I began to turn to other sorts of books. From Foyle’s in London, I stole a copy of Everyman’s Selected Poems of Wordsworth. They seemed a bit dull and plodding but reminded me of rural Wiltshire where I grew up. For a few months I copied Wordsworth. Perhaps a year later, after a good dose of Sartre, I was finding my way back to the academic study of literature. It was the poetry (and drama) of T S Eliot that I fell in love with (not Dylan Thomas – the other poet on the curriculum). I still have those early Eliotesque poems somewhere, mostly Prufrock period style, though also a horrifyingly pretentious sequence of poems like a clumsy, anaphora-laden Waste Land.
Re-starting my Higher Education took me to Lancaster University, studying Literature and Philosophy (and a few sessions of Creative Writing with poet, David Craig) and Hughes and Larkin were served up and readily ingested. At first, I swerved to the latter’s urban details and personal gloom; later it was the Hughes of Gaudete (recently published, 1977) that I copied, writing a long, quasi-mythic, magic-real, psychodrama about sex and power that I eventually self-published in Oxford. As a post-graduate among the dreaming spires, it was Percy Byshe Shelley who I was working on for several years and, though not a model for poems as such, his ideas about the role of the Imagination and poetry as an “Orphic language” have been important to me ever since.
Among contemporary poets, I’d discovered Heaney (not the rural Ireland stuff so much as his wrestling with private and public responsibilities – Station Island, for example), Peter Redgrove’s fluid take on mind’s encounter with the natural world (The Apple Broadcast) and Ken Smith’s urban-political Americana (oh how I wanted to have written Fox Running). I wrote individual poems modelled on all these writers while absorbing much more deeply the work of the Romantic period – only now did I really find Keats, his poems and letters, Wordsworth still, Coleridge’s Conversation poems especially. What might have been expected – Hardy, Auden, Yeats, Frost, Stevens, Lowell, Bishop, Plath, Dickinson – were all missing or they missed me.
A decade of writing, reading, plus some reviewing too. A couple of my own books published and I’d stumbled my way to Rilke’s New Poems, Elegies and Sonnets, the second and third of which I began to translate and (whether visible on the surface or not) were a great influence on me – the Duino Elegies for their thoughtful drive from existential mourning to praise, the Sonnets to Orpheus for that same thought (more of the praise) and their use of form. From Whitman I found my way to W S Merwin’s marvellous fluidity (something I was comparing to Paul Eluard’s work too) and from Rilke it seemed a logical (not the right word at all) step towards the 81 texts of the Daodejing which again I felt I had to try to English because it both rhymed with what I already knew and I knew it would develop further what I needed to know.
A few years back, an article in PN Review sent me to the work of Yves Bonnefoy. A heart-rate raising sense of another writer who had fought the two-faced dragon of language and seen enough to conclude that at the bottom of its filthy lair gleamed the concept and the concept promises a “strange immortality” but only if we can “forget brutal reality”. One reason (I’m now quoting an earlier blog post on a 1953 essay by Bonnefoy) we do this is that there are “general truths in conceptual thinking and a particular kind of power derived from it. It ‘allows thinking’ of a certain kind; it is linked with ‘the vast power of words’. But any gain is predicated on a significant loss, the abandonment of the actually existing ‘world of things’. Conceptual thinking is ‘systematized’, generalizing, categorizing; it’s in this that its ‘flight’ from the real is found. The only sort of thing that can be held up to counter the concept are specific particularities of human experience: Bonnefoy asks ‘Is there a concept for footsteps in the night, for a cry, for a stone rolling in the brushwood? For the feeling evoked by an empty house? No [. . . ]’”
Reading Bonnefoy did not send me lurching to right or left but rather nudged, re-calibrated, re-assured me that my own direction of travel was not a wholly isolated one. I don’t write like Bonnefoy – there can be a dull abstraction to his poems which seems to me to contradict his ideas about real presence expressed as specific particularities – but I know what thought underlies my own work has close parallels to his (as far as I understand him). That’s influence, I’d say.
In my next blog, I’ll look at the question of influence from a different angle – what ghosts of other writers can be seen in more recent work?
Last week I blogged the first part of a longer essayfirst published in the Spring 2017 issue of Poetry London. What follows is the second half of it. The whole piece starts and ends with thoughts prompted by my experiences with my father and his growing dementia. Dad has since suffered a series of heart attacks and died on May 24th. I am re-producing the essay unchanged in the hope that it still says something of value about types of ‘confusion’ and in memory of a man who would have had little time for such morbid reflections. Thanks to Tim Dooley who commissioned the essay for Poetry London and published it under the original title: A Straining Eye Catches no Glimpse.
In Part 1, I linked my father’s forgetfulness and confusion with recurrent references to “nothing” in King Lear and to Anne Carson’s concept of “the dementia of the real”. I suggested this was also a correlative of Yves Bonnefoy’s interest in the “state of indifferentiation” he often refers to as “Presence”. For Bonnefoy, Presence contrasts the conceptual/linguistic world through which we most often move and we take to be real.
Yves Bonnefoy’s poem ‘Wind and Smoke’ (from The Wandering Life (1993)) has the abduction of Helen as its nominal subject. But he allows the poem to be taken over by dissenting voices, irritably seeking to “explain, to justify, ten years of war”. Such an expense of men, ships and spirit (argues one such “commentator”) must have been for the sake of something more permanent than the merely human figure of Helen. The poem entertains the suggestion that she herself was never abducted, “only an image: a statue”, something of great beauty to be displayed on the terraces of Troy, a fixed image of Helen, blessed with permanence, “always [. . .] this smile”. The poem is concerned then with the limitedness of the conceptual view which finds worth only in things of assured, definable permanence. In contrast, Part One of the poem ends with a proliferation of images of “spilling”, lovers as “clouds” or “lightning” on an “earthly bed”, so fully involved with time that their pleasures in the moment are “already empty, still full”. [i]
There’s that paradox again and Bonnefoy’s versions of it articulate the impossibility of capturing Presence because it encompasses and exists in time (and language wishes to stop time):
The “jolts” here are akin to Lily Briscoe’s “jar on the nerves” as our paradigms and preconceptions are challenged. The figure of Helen has become that visionary experience – for Bonnefoy usually of beauty, for Carson more often a violent disturbance – that we intuit exists just beyond the range of our usual instruments. Helen, the poem argues, “was only / That intuition which led Homer to bend / Over sounds that come from lower than his strings / In the clumsy lyre of earthly words”.
Part Two of ‘Wind and Smoke’ concludes with a child, an image of the poet, the last person to see the figure of Helen as Troy burns:
This same image of water slipping from our human grasp is recurrent in the Ancient Chinese writings that make up Laozi’s 4th/5th century BCE text, the Daodejing. Since they were published earlier this year, I have been reading my versions of these texts up and down the country and the one thing audiences want to say about them is they contain “wisdom”.[iv] It’s an old-fashioned word but it’s also bound up with the nothing that is really a fuller something we seldom manage to grasp. The Daodejing texts use water as an image of the ineffable One, the plenitude that lies behind all things. They employ water metaphors in such a way that the vehicles are clear and recurrent (ocean, pool, river, stream) but the tenor remains an empty set, never defined. So Chapter 1 deploys water imagery but is clear about the short-comings of all language: “the path I can put a name to / cannot take me the whole way”. Even what can be named can only be grasped through further metaphors: the “nursery where ten thousand things / are raised each in their own way”. What lies behind the phenomenal world can only be gestured towards through figures such as “mould”, “source”, “mystery”. Even then it’s “a riddle set adrift on a mystery”. The original Chinese text shifts its metaphors rapidly in just this way and this is what gives this opening Chapter the peculiar sensation of telling a clear truth that remains beyond our grasp. Chapter 14 puts it this way:
because a straining eye catches no glimpse
it is called elusive
as the ear attends but latches onto nothing
it is called rarefied
since a hand reaches but clasps only thin air
it is called infinitesimal
and these are resistant to further analysis
The difficulty of grasping this something that seems nothing is revisited in Chapter 4. There, the tenor of the metaphor is reduced to “it”, the context indicating this refers to the Dao itself, the One, that state of wholeness and plenitude towards which the path of the Dao leads. The opening formulation emphasises the Dao’s infinite nature, its resource as “a vessel to be drawn from / one that never needs to be re-filled // the bottomless source of all things”. But the image is revised a few lines later in the form of a question: “is it rather a pool that never runs dry”, yet this follows four other metaphorical formulations of the Dao’s beneficial effects: “fretted edges are smoothed within it / knots untangled all dazzle eased / all blinding clouds of dust slowly cleared”. The poem calmly declares its own ineffectiveness: “we cannot know it as a bodiless image / it must pre-date every beginning”. Even the concept of origin or beginning is not adequate to convey the nature of the Dao. But the fluidity of water – impossible to grasp, capable of taking any shape, a life-giving source – comes close.
That there is wisdom to be gained from such visionary encounters with the mystery of nothing is clear in Chapter 66. It’s no coincidence that these lines can serve as a commentary on Lear, his suffering bringing him low till he realises he has paid too little attention to the “looped and ragged” nature of his own nation:
—how do rivers and seas secure mastery
over the hundreds of lesser streams
through lying lower than they do
so to govern or teach you must stand
and acknowledge you are beneath the people
to guide them put yourself at the rear
But as Auden suggested and Chinese tradition affirms, such visionary insight cannot be actively sought or taught. This is one of the points of the traditional narrative trope in Chinese poetry of ‘Visiting a Hermit and Not Finding Him’. Don Paterson turned this into a good joke in a poem called ‘On Going to Meet a Zen Master in the Kyushu Mountains and Not Finding Him’.[v] The reader’s eye descends from this lengthy title only to look in vain – it’s a blank page. Perhaps Paterson had been reading the Penguin Classics selection of Li Po and Tu Fu.[vi] The Li Po selection opens with the poem ‘On Visiting a Taoist Master in the Tai-T’ien Mountains and Not Finding Him’. But such poems were never just an excuse for descriptive nature poetry but related to the frequent ‘spirit-journeys’ that Li Po was fond of writing. We are all like that student in Li Po’s poem, seeking out certainties and facts, a something to depend on when true wisdom gently (or violently) deflects us away from shelter towards a world where we glimpse a more full-blooded, full-bodied, open-minded encounter with what really is.
I have really been talking about two attitudes to knowledge or to put it more carefully, two contrasting “ways of being”. This is how Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Master and his Emissary (Yale, 2009) expresses it.[vii] McGilchrist argues parts of the human brain deliver quite different kinds of attention to the world. The left brain perceives the world as “static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented [. . .] grouped into classes”.[viii] This is the attitude to knowledge and education the anxious student of Li Po’s poem possesses as well as the place where most of us live amongst Carson’s clichés and Bonnefoy’s conceptual language. In contrast, McGilchrist associates the right brain with the perception of “the live, complex, embodied, world of individual, always unique beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world with which we are deeply connected”[ix] yet one at risk of being perceived or judged as a mere confusion, a seeming nothing.
This is the view of the Daoist master whose teaching evokes the as-yet-uncarved block of wood, who teaches best without words. Ordinary language usage, dependent as it is on conceptual thought, is left-brain work – ordering, categorising, re-presenting the minute particulars of the world as they are perceived by the right brain. Li Po’s teacher is surely hiding somewhere beyond the cherry blossom – and this is part of the student’s lesson. Don Paterson’s blank page represents a rather glib, post-modern joke, a scepticism about language in danger of throwing out the interconnected but bewildering “dementia” of the real world along with the suspect tokens and counters of left-brain language: “To say that language holds truth concealed is not to say that language simply serves to conceal truth [. . .] or much worse, that there is no such thing as truth”[x]. Bonnefoy, engaging in his own battles with the early stirrings of French post-modernism, declared: “This world here exists, of that I am certain [. . .] It is simply with us.”[xi] The right brain knows this and it’s from there we want to write poems; the left brain serves to fragment it, utilise it, get it under control, disappear it. And yet . . . there’s no much here suitable for a chat with a forgetful father. His visions are more frightening and may get worse; here, for a while, his son has been imagining ways of seeing that need not be so.
[i] tr. Naughton, Naughton and Rudolf, pp. 197-203.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I met poet, translator and critic, Hilary Davies, back in the early 1980s and our paths have kept crossing since. She was one of the first intake of women undergraduates at Wadham College, Oxford, where she read French and German. She won an Eric Gregory award in 1983, has been a Hawthornden Fellow and chair of the Poetry Society (1992–3). With David Constantine, she co-founded and edited the poetry magazine Argo and has three previous collections of poetry (published by Enitharmon): The Shanghai Owner of the Bonsai Shop (1991); In a Valley of This Restless Mind (1997); Imperium (2005). She was head of languages at St Paul’s Girls’ School, London, for 19 years and was married to the poet, Sebastian Barker, who died in 2014.
Davies’ new collection, Exile and the Kingdom (Enitharmon, 2016), is framed by two very powerful sequences. It opens with ‘Across Country’, a series of seven poems which add up to an autobiographical ‘growth of the poet’s mind’. The book concludes with ‘Exile and the Kingdom’ itself, a further eight poems which are nothing less than a meditation on the poet’s raw grief and re-discovery, or reassertion, of her religious faith. Both sequences contain weddings.
‘Across Country’ opens with an evocation of a child’s first moments, “what gets forgotten”, in a state of inarticulacy, no ability to exert our own will, with no will even, language-less and effectively silent, being “carried by gods”. Passive in the hands of mother and father, the journey variously begins in “The reindeer saddle and the motor car, / the sighing desert and the plateau wind”. Davies seems to suggest these first human experiences fall onto a tabula rasa as they “Etch the first surfaces of particularity / And settle in our souls”. The particular development traced here is Davies’ own, of course, and crucially this involves a later period of travel in France. Happily alluding to Wordsworth’s own tracing of his youthful days and Revolutionary enthusiasm in France (“Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive /But to be young was very heaven” – The Prelude, Book 11), Davies praises “the glory of the cornfield and belltower, / Granite, limestone, vineyard and cloister”. As with Wordsworth, France offers an experience of human love, but Davies is also drawn to intellectual pursuits, the thrilling confusion of “many minds passing”, arguments of “polity and governance” and to the “meretricious fruit / Of the ideology tree”. We are being told this in order for such concerns to be ultimately dismissed:
The lords of existence
Are neither economist nor philosopher
The Lord of existence
Shows himself not in systems
The fourth poem in ‘Across Country’ seems to record the young woman’s first realisation that religion was to be the answer to many of the questions she was asking: “I crossed into church after church that summer, / Thinking of erudition, but beside me trod Love”. The capitalisation and conventional personification makes it clear that Davies is deliberate and happy to place herself in a long tradition of poetry dealing with religious experience; there is no radical re-making of poetic form or language. Davies does not use masks. Discursive passages are in unrhymed, fairly irregular paragraphs which are punctuated every so often with more lyrical rhyming passages, song-like.
Poem five of ‘Across Country’ is just such a lyrical piece, portraying a wedding, but not one that lasts:
Hate has eaten my bridegroom’s heart
And remorse is become my fury
Now I must go the road of affliction
Searching for mercy.
That search, Davies argues, is more a matter of “Waiting, not willing”. It is the traditional negative road in the sense of the centrality of “self-surrender”, imaged in the seventh poem as the sensation of being on a boat on a threatening ocean: “No measure but the dark blue breathing of the opening deep, / Where personhood dissolves beyond mere terror”. I don’t share Davies’ faith but I share her belief that, in terms of our daily acts and choices, we are to be judged in the long run: “Only perdurance delivers”. And in terms of the nature of those acts and choices, whatever set-backs are faced, we need to be accompanied by that same figure who walked beside her into the churches in France: “what love is, and does”. Read as the record of the poet’s experiences, it’s likely that this opening sequence concludes with Davies meeting with Sebastian Barker, the beginning of new happiness (“I knew instantly I had to go the hard way with you / To learn how to love better”).
The central sections of this collection are made up of poems more directly engaged with the contemporary world of north London, Stamford Hill, Walthamstow, the valley of the River Lee, Abney Park in Stoke Newington (I blogged one of these poem’s a few weeks ago). There are also poems more explicitly concerned with the relationship with Barker with titles like ‘Night’s Cloak’, ‘Aubade’, ‘Love Song’. I’ve always thought it a premature admission of defeat to declare ‘happiness writes white’ but some of these poems slip too easily into a mode in which this reader feels more like eavesdropping than sharing the experience of years of happy marriage; technically there is a flowering of lyricism and some softening of the vocabulary. On the other hand nobody is going to read these poems and not be thinking of Hardy’s tributes to Emma Gifford – it seems whether the marriage was mutually loving or not, the sense of loss remains overwhelming.
This is where the concluding sequence picks up though there is no need to narrow Davies’ focus wholly to the autobiographical. As I’ve said, these poems are in the tradition of religious verse and there are passages here that stand comparison with the Eliot of the Four Quartets. The opening poem – a little sequence in itself – paints a state of despair, initially social and political, latterly more personal:
Then there’s the heartache
At the core of things: attachment, the blank certainty
Of letting go, the arbitrary wing of accident,
Wrong gene or partner, a lifetime bled into the dusty ground
Of non-fulfilment, the waste [. . . ]”
The temptation is to try to counter this by accepting “ourselves as measure”, to focus simply on career, material gain, simply being busy, keeping warm. That this is never enough in itself is suggested when Davies recalls a favourite uncle who, having apparently a comfortable and successful life kills himself. For the young Davies what this taught was clear: “the impossibility of loving begets despair, / And despair kills”. The third poem of ‘Exile and the Kingdom’ seems to mark the beginning of the end of exile and returns to one of the many French churches mentioned in the earlier sequence.
Out of the bustling Parisian streets, the narrator turns aside and understands, “Even if I have all gifts without love I am nothing”. As in Four Quartets, Davies mixes philosophical discursiveness with personal reminiscence and poem four recalls a Christmas morning in a country church. The priest, apparently ill, still takes the service, his gasping for breath making his faith even more memorable, a Wordsworthian spot of time worthy of recall in darker moments in the struggle to “retain that sudden downrush / Of the numinous that was supposed to change us”. Poem seven expresses the sense of hard-won joy through another lyrical presentation of a second wedding. On this occasion, no clouds foreshadow failure but as the bride stands at the door, a wind blows her veil up like a candle flame or flower:
The guests are gathered in the church at Salle
The light falls on the floor;
For all eternity the rose
Stands at heaven’s door.
But the sequence and whole book ends in the altogether wilder landscape of St David’s, Wales. The final poem suggests such rose and flame moments are but parts of the coherence of a life where experience must inevitably consist of “Innocence and loss, hope, wisdom, regret and thanksgiving”. Exile and the Kingdom intends to convey this in full. Although propelled most often by loss of a loved one, the burden of the book remains love not grief. It matters little whether we share Davies’ particular form of faith, since what comes strongly from these pages is her concern for the way we treat each other, our overloaded preoccupation with ourselves, how our acts and choices are affected. Poems like these themselves form spots of time for the reader and I’m not going to forget their human concern for what love is and does.
To wish everybody a peaceful Christmas and to apologise for my absence from blogging in recent weeks, I hope you will enjoy this poem from Hilary Davies’ new collection Exile and Kingdom (Enitharmon Press, 2016). Though I don’t share her faith, I do share her hope, though too often the world seems determined to test both faith and hope.
In the Fire-Frost Morning
In the fire-frost morning the geese drive south
Trailing hosannas over the estuaries
And the beasts on the clockhouse stir.
From Tottenham Hale to Hackney Downs
The trumpets of day sound
And the gulls swarm up like heralds
Over the sleepers. ‘Awake! Awake!’
Throw open your skylights, thrust your heads to see:
Two things dove-tailing this week . . . My thoughts way ahead of time about ekphrastic poems (poems stimulated by visual art) in relation to the workshop I am scheduled to run at the Holburne Museum in Bath in February 2017. The particular exhibition was in the news this last week as they will be showing, amongst many others, a newly-rediscovered painting by Peter Breughel. Also I went to the Beyond Caravaggio exhibition at The National Gallery a couple of days ago. There, though the numbers of Carravaggios per square metre of wall space is relatively low, much of what’s on display by those who came under his influence is well worth seeing.
At the end of the 16th century Caravaggio brought an almost photographic precision to painting, mixing elements of still life with portraits and religious subjects. His people are caught (again almost photographically) in realistic seeming mid-gesture, twisting, stooping, hands wide or aloft. Then there’s the light: powerful light sources cast illumination and correspondingly deep shadows across the figures, darkening the brows of a face, across a hand at a card game, on exposed flesh. One of the ‘followers’ turns out to be Gerrit van Honthorst whose towering ‘Christ before the High Priest’ is displayed in the final room. As I came across it I had one of those moments of recognition. The picture has been in the National Gallery collection for many years and it provided the (ekphrastic) stimulation for one of my earliest poems.
The poem eventually appeared in my first book, Beneath Tremendous Rain (Enitharmon, 1990) and I’ve always had a soft spot for it as Dannie Abse chose to include it in the plush, coffee-table anthology called Voices in the Gallery (Tate Gallery Publications) he edited 1986 with Joan, his wife and art historian. For a wannabe poet with no book yet it was a dizzying moment – a not-to-be repeated moment – being sandwiched between Zbigniew Herbert, W. H. Auden and Thomas Hardy! Year later I got Dannie to sign my original copy of it.
The voice in my poem is naïve and unknowing, an art historian ignoramus (close to the autobiographical truth). But he looks hard, starting with a bewildered rationalism as he tries to get to grips with the stylised, stiff religious images of the “early galleries”. He understands he’s nothing more than one of the “casual visitors” who prefer to gaze at something familiar, the “recognisable gesture”, the more simply realistic and identifiable images contained in later works. But gradually he recognises the thorough-going empiricism of “dimension, distance and the need for accuracy” has its own limits (I still like the dig against my own gender’s devotion of facts, though the portrayal of the too submissive female partner I’d not let through these days).
The Expressionistic distortions of Van Gogh (“inconsistent with the camera”) begin to appeal to him as he understands the impossibility of a truly objective view (“eyes jaundiced / only with being human and limited”) which – he seems to be on a circular walk round the National Gallery – then allows him to re-assess the earlier images. With the passage of time and the loss of religious faith (I was sure of it then, back in the 1980s), these pictures also openly admit their distortions. Their “dogma is laughable now, or / almost so”. They obviously possess no camera-like claim to objectivity or all-inclusiveness. Rather they now seem to him to admit “in all self-consciousness, / other possibilities multiplying beyond the frame”. It’s at that point the image of Honthorst’s ‘Christ before the High Priest’ comes to mind. It seemed to me then an image that was interesting and powerful at least as much for what lies just out of sight as for what the casual visitor can see plainly.
Years later, in different poetic modes, I’m still intrigued by what lies just beyond our reach – the Daoist’s uncarved block of wood – still think it has as much power as what we plainly see. Here’s the old poem in full:
At The National Gallery
What am I to do with these angels’ wings,
with the literalness of these gaping heavens
and haloes in the early galleries?
No-one believes them. Beyond meaning,
they are absurd – mannered and posed figures
as unlikely as the nude’s fig-leaf, the wooden
gestures of saints staring straight through you:
uncomfortable attitudes, seeming content
with their fantasies of transfiguration and myth.
Yet casual visitors walk right past. They’re drawn
to quotidian scenes, the scruffy breeches, old hats
in later pictures where they scribble notes,
trying to capture the vanishing feelings
of viewing these captured moments
of vanishing things – the recognisable gesture
at an execution, on the river, in the boudoir.
And I with them, yet always end uncomfortably
tracing holiday strolls through Canaletto’s
Venice or impatient somehow with men
who explain to their quiet partners about
dimension, distance and the need for accuracy.
But Van Gogh’s crippled chair confounds them,
restores a sense of things perceived in ways
inconsistent with the camera, eyes jaundiced
only with being human and limited which is
other than the capture of fleeting things,
the stunned insect, and like verse that must
struggle to avoid its final stop: another fairy-tale
though there are no haloes, no heaven here.
And I go back to those old pictures to find
their appeal, uncovered, is the honesty, almost
innocence, time has forced upon them,
for what was then dogma is laughable now, or
almost so. Uncameralike, their contentment admits,
I travelled north to Bradford earlier this week to read from my versions of the Daodejing. For the first time a reader of Mandarin was present to read from something approaching the original texts. Bradford artist Yan Wangread beautifully as well as providing the evening with a couple of large banner-scrolls of chapters from the text. The whole evening had been organised by an old friend, Bruce Barnes, a poet and tireless organiser and more recently translator of long-neglected work by Kosuke Shirasu, a Japanese proletarian writer from the 1920/30s. I read Bruce’s ‘interpretations’ of Shirasu’s work (done with the help of Jun Shirasu and published as Out of his struggles (Utistugu Press, Bradford) on the train back to London and it reminded me that I had wanted for a while to organise my thoughts about the political elements in the Daodejing poems. (Poem titles in brackets are those I have given to the individual ‘chapters’ of the text).
It’s generally accepted that one of the purposes of the collection of texts called the Daodejing is to instruct about good government. Chapter 46 (Annexation) argues that when government adheres to the Way – the teachings of the Daoist ideas – then its great parades of horses “are put out to grass to fertilise the ground”. It’s when government neglects the Way that its “war horses sire and foal / even on sacred ground”. Such neglect leads to personal and political “unsteadiness” which Chapter 26 (‘Breath-taking Scenes’) identifies as the “loss of all authority”. This is authority in its truest sense because in other poems we read of aggressive, power-grabbing behaviour which is also a way of neglecting Daoist ideas. Chapter 29 (‘What is Fixed’) describes those who grab at “earthly power” who are as liable to smash it as gain any advantage.
One of the key chapters, 67 (‘Three Treasures’) goes so far as to suggest that “only one reluctant to grasp power / is properly capable of government”. One clear attitude in these poems is that busy, hyperactive government – one that “grows brisk full of initiatives” – is an error:
those who hope
to rule by dishing out
a multiplicity of choices
are the con-men
of the nation
Chapter 65 (‘Blizzard’)
This distrust of big government is compounded when those with power try to ingratiate themselves with those they rule. With very little modernisation, the Daodejing is suspicious of those politicians who “style themselves ‘man of the people’ / sometimes ‘housewife’ / they like to say ‘we are all in this together’” (Chapter 39). What lies behind such cynical declarations is a real hunger for power as an exercise of ego (not true government). Laozi is very clear that such egoistic motives lead only in one direction for a nation: war.
–those who govern my teacher says
must oppose conquest by force of arms
such methods swiftly rebound
thorn and bramble where troops assemble
Chapter 30 (‘Scorched Earth’)
Leaders (and the Daodejing never really doubts that human society needs leaders of a sort) need to adhere to the Way and encourage their people to do the same. Chapter 37 (‘Dispassion’) puts it succinctly:
—the way enacts nothing yet through it all things are achieved
if the powerful
possessed themselves of it
the ten thousand would be transformed
once transformed if they begin
to demand action
they ought to be constrained
with the uncarved wood quality of namelessness
the unconditional quality of the nameless
hence it is to be still
so the nation pursues its way in peace
This idea of ‘constraint’ begins to sound authoritarian again but elsewhere it appears our political leaders are being advised not to over-encourage our expectations. Chapter 19 (‘Fewer Wishes’) advises that a people’s restlessness ought to be dealt with by offering them “simplicity / to behold give them the uncarved block // give them selflessness give fewer wishes”. In our world of unconfined desire and acquisitiveness (the point of being alive?) this sounds suspect perhaps but is perfectly in line with those who choose to opt out of modern life towards simplicity, fewer possessions etc. The uncarved block is a recurring image representing the fullest presence of life and experience before we begin to hack away at it with our self-centred preconceptions. The three virtues of the Daodejing are to be compassionate, to be frugal and to lack ambition.
The point is that Daoist thinking is optimistic about human nature. There is a Rousseauistic quality to its belief in the goodness of mankind as a noble savage who has for too long been corrupted by interference, too many codes of behaviour imposed from above. This is where the poems’ anti-Confucian elements are most obvious. Chapter 18 (Codes of kindness’) argues it’s only when the Way “falls into disuse / codes of kindness thoughts / of morality evolve”. Laozi argues we are better off without such rules of codified behaviour. This is not quite anarchism but certainly a powerfully libertarian thread runs through the work. In one of the most striking images in the whole sequence, Chapter 60 (‘Recipe’) compares true government to the cooking of a “delicate fish”. It requires the gentlest of touches:
or any demon
or the fretting
of your own spirit
no shuffle or harm
or sudden injury
but aid and attend
the power to feed
the common purpose
It’s this delicacy, gentleness, almost passivity of government that leads Laozi to associate this approach with the stereotypically ‘female’. Early on, in Chapter 6 (‘Valley’) we are told the spirit of the Way is “[a] valley without end / it is female it is called mysteriousness”. This translates politically into government playing a largely passive role (as does the good teacher) to show, facilitate, enthuse, give space, watch and approve. Government must be honest, give the tools, give opportunities, do its job well. Its role is to synthesise and connect (not disconnect or sever), shed light (but without dazzling, even inadvertently), use a delicate touch, be tangential. Its actions call forth responses to the fact it acts, plans, demands. Better back off, do not intervene, don’t use imperatives, perhaps use no words at all. It is better to play the female part, be passive, give space, encourage desired behaviours, neglect all else.
—strong nations must play the low ground
to which all contributing waters flow
the point to which all things converge
so their invitations issue from stillness
through quiescence they gather power
let’s call that female and the male cannot
resist he brings his watery tributes
and she gains adherents he procures favour
as she looks to embrace and empower
he finds himself part of a greater thing
in this way becomes part of creation
so both thrive both discovering bliss—
real power is female it rises from beneath
Like the cooked fish, another memorable image is the bending of a bow. As it is bent the top (of society) descends earthwards while what is “nearest the earth is raised up”. This is the ideal process of government in the Daodejing. Only in Chapter 80 (‘The Commonwealth’) does Laozi give something of a portrait of the contentedly ruled society. It is small, hard-working, has basic needs met; it has the capability of greater luxury (and also weapons) but none of these are made use of. This little society is aware of others around it (perhaps run on different lines) but its people are so content they feel no desire to travel.
Idealistic without doubt. But does this even sound attractive? It’s unlikely to – given our absorption into our consumerist society, our expectations that government ought to provide and lead. But we don’t need to look far to see systems breaking down and at the least what the Daodejing offers is an alternative vision of the exercise of power in society. It’s a vision that is over 2000 years old which means it’s either well past its sell-by-date or that it contains some wisdom that we ought not to ignore.