Sheenagh Pugh (sheenaghpugh) wrote,
Sheenagh Pugh

Review of Lightning Beneath the Sea, by Grahame Davies (Seren 2012)

This is the first poetry collection in English by a writer who is already noted for both poetry and prose in Welsh. Some of the poems in it were composed in English, some first composed in Welsh and then translated by the poet.


There's a poem in it called "Sweet Peas" , which I want to discuss in some detail, not only because I like it very much but because it completely avoids certain dangers he doesn't wholly avoid elsewhere. It is an iambic conversation-poem in the manner of Robert Frost, quite deliberately, since it deals with a packet of seeds bought at Frost's house in Vermont and replanted in Wales, so far without success. The one detail I would alter about this poem is the way it's set out on the page. Where a line begins in voice, I don't think it needs indenting, and where the voice changes mid-line I would drop the line and indent the next beyond it (as indeed Frost does), so that, eg, the lines
striving towards the sunlight.
       "It's a shame",
I said, remembering how, six months ago

would read
striving towards the sunlight.
                                              "It's a shame",
I said, remembering how, six months ago

But other than that, this poem strikes me as a triumph. It is iambic in that ambling conversational Frost style that seems so natural as to be unnoticeable, and its underlying intent is similarly understated. It shows without obtrusively telling, as when the man suggests reasons for the seeds' failure:
"Maybe they just don't travel very well.
Perhaps the earth is colder over here."
She doesn't answer. On the greenhouse door
the paint has blistered in last summer's sun.

There is a strong implication that what is really not flourishing is the relationship, but this is never made explicit, even at the end:
"We'll leave them here and if they come, they come."
A cloud has stepped between us and the light.
We close the door to keep the warmth inside.
"Another week, perhaps…"
"Perhaps", she says.

The sombre mood of this poem, with its doubtful hint of last-chances at the end, seems to me beautifully done, and the technique is handled as surely as the emotion –is indeed part of what creates it. The iambic pentameter suits both the poem's mood and the Frost-homage, and the openness of the ending reflects an assurance that trusts the reader to experience the poem without being guided by signposts.

There are other poems here that do this – "Quarry" and "Goodbye", among them, have the same preservation of mystery, the sense that not all the back-story has been spelled out, or needs to be. In others, I think he does tell too much. The first two verses of "Remembrance of Things Past" are plain unnecessary, the sort of preliminary explanation one might put in a reading, or indeed a lecture; the poem would work far better if it started at verse 3. More often, I think his last lines seek to close things off too tidily; you can sometimes see them striving to make a point. "Hoodie", until the end, is tense and sharply observed:
             his shadowed cheeks unlined
but somehow not because he was not old
but more as though he had been young too long,
like for a lifetime, for eternity.

But the end,
His hand comes up, as if on puppet strings,
and mine goes out and takes it, and we're one.

feels like an attempt at a Meaningful Moment that doesn't come off. It isn't really earned for a start; the gesture comes out of nowhere and feels unconvincing.

As is clear from the quotes above, Davies has a real flair for coining sharp, pithy phrases that get to the nub of the matter. He is a thoughtful, meditative, serious poet and well worth reading. What I think he most needs to be is less tidy. Peter Finch's description of these poems as "the meeting of form with freedom" is only sometimes true. Sometimes the prevalence, not to mention the regularity, of Davies's favoured iambic pentameter becomes oppressive. This is especially so in his villanelles, the tidiest form in the world and potentially the deadest – the end is, after all, predetermined from the first three lines on. I must admit villanelles seldom work for me unless the poet subverts them somehow – "Song for Samhain" does it to some extent by varying the line length, but mostly his use of this form is nothing if not conventional. He is really skilled with form, but I would like to see him use it more as Paul Muldoon and Paul Henry do, with their disguised sestinas and variant rondeaux that you only notice on a second or third reading.

This is a good, interesting collection, but I think there will be a better yet to come from this poet, one which manages not to look as if it's trying quite so hard.When it does work, his formal command and pithy pay-off lines can be superb, nowhere more so than in "Transmitter Stations":

Imagine what it must be like to work
in one of these. The gate locked shut behind,
the solitude – not loneliness – the shifts,
the cups of tea to mark the passing hours;
inside, electric warmth, outside, the wind.
And all the time, sending your message out.
Ideal, really, when you think of it.
Tags: book reviews, poetry, translation, wales

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