Not Holiday Reading?

The Llyn Writing, Peter Riley [124pp, £8.95, Shearsman]
As If Only, Ian Davidson [96pp, £8.95 Shearsman]

The cover notes for Peter Riley’s book are anxious to assure the reader that these writings, although having their origin in family caravan holidays in the Llyn Peninsula, are not ‘what I did on my holidays’ poems. But so what if they were? The book itself and the fact that Riley returned to this special place so many times provide ample evidence that he had a genuine affinity with Llyn, one that spurred him to creativity. Why shouldn’t he write about it?

One of my favourite poems in the whole volume, ‘Sailing, Sailing Away’ is surely first and foremost a record of ‘what we did’. It describes a visit to ‘Hell’s Mouth’, or Porth Neigwl in close detail. Incidentally, despite its ‘Lord of the Rings’ associations (cf. ‘Nazgûl’), ‘Porth Neigwl’, doesn’t directly translate as ‘Hell’s Mouth. ‘Uffern’ is ‘Hell’ and ‘Porth’ is more usually translated as ‘Gate’. The meaning of ‘Neigwl’ is in fact unknown. Anyway, the last-but-one stanza of this one reads:

     The boat glides up the cove and grates on the loose
     Stones. We mount the side cliff and wind up the day
     In wet shoes with fishscales in our hair. The fisherman
     Winds the boat up the shore, grinding slowly past
     Heaps of marine detritus and wrack, to a safe place.
     The light is almost gone. The sky curtain stirs and leaks.

It’s hard to see that such descriptive writing is anything other than the heart of the poem, even if the final stanza moves into a more introspective mode when, back in the caravan, Riley sends his ‘…consciousness out like a gull / Over the sea, away from the wasteful and gaudy shops / Of this life, away from my own tricks, indeed away / From the untruthful land. This dark divided church.’ There are many more such examples of lyric description followed by introspection in the collection. To me, Riley seems more comfortable with the former, but that’s not to say that some of the latter is not worthwhile.

There is a fair amount of prose (as well as prose-poems) in the book. Some of this is interesting, like the Addenda and Notes to ‘Sea Watches’, which in fact provide a good background to the volume as a whole to any reader who doesn’t know Llyn.

Some of the more absorbing of the writing, oddly enough, is in the short sequence of prose poems entitled ‘Absent from Llyn, (1994-1997)’. The last of the four ends:

     Aware of distance, aware of poverty, aware of hopelessness,
     sleeping in identity, one eye half open.

     Goodnight from me here with my wine and my word processor,
     to the green dark out there, full of calls.  

Ian Davidson’s poems also are indebted to particular places; in his case to North Wales, Barcelona, London, the Baltic Coast; Fez and Marrakech. In this collection, though, some of the best of the poems probably owe more to the ugly spiral that the world has continued to slide down over the two-year period in which they were written.

I was pleased to see that Davidson has not forsaken the talent for short poems he displayed in a previous collection, At a stretch - few enough poets recognise the virtues of brevity - and I have to say that some of the work in As if only engaged me more. Not all of it though: the first few poems were too ‘Davidson-centred’ to appeal much to me. It seemed that the collection really started to get into its stride with ‘Sheet Music’ which, although still essentially about the poet’s personal response to the world about him, contains some thoughtful passages like ‘touch as strangers / without organisation / perspire / emerging as strangers / opening a plaza/ of possibility.’

The poem that appealed most to me, was ‘The Independent’, in which the world’s events intrude on Davidson’s awareness in a very direct way. This one focuses on a journey by tube-train soon after the London bombings, and superbly conveys the edgy feeling shared by all of the passengers. This is a short extract from it:

     … I cannot comprehend
     I wish I could say that and mean it. You cause
     A war on someone’s soil and then they bring
     A bit of it back to yours. How hard is that to

This is plain speaking. Davidson doesn’t always speak plainly enough, at least as far as I’m concerned. I wish, for instance, that I had been able to grasp what he was getting at with ‘Sarn Helen’ (Sarn-y-lleng; ‘causeway of the legion’). An extract from the middle section of its two pages reads: ‘…and the three eyed // fish wink [sic] to itself at / a joke that has been / doing the / rounds and bowing/ out through / curtains of // clouds and before the / outlaws before them…’

It’s a shame, because poems like ‘fish, flesh and fowl’, ‘between mess and message’, ‘waveform’, and ‘signs of life’ said what they had to say with a kind of charm as well as more (though perhaps still not enough) directness. But this says more about me than it does about Ian Davidson.

          © Raymond Humphreys 2007