REVIEW by Amy McCauley

NWR Issue r2

Judas

by Damian Walford Davies

The forty-seven poems in Judas are unmistakeably and emphatically the work of Damian Walford Davies. Yes, this statement sounds rather odd – insincere even – but bear with me. What I mean is that these poems display all of the characteristic qualities we associate with Walford Davies’s poetry. Sensuous phrase-making; rich, punchy lines; finely tuned rhythms; effortless mastery of voice; lush but controlled sounds and images; a keen sense of place; efficient line breaks. All of which is to say that to read Judas is to read a poet utterly at home in his style; is to experience a poet throwing the full force of his range at his subject; is to feel the achievement of a poet’s technique under absolute control.

So far so good. I would, however, like to rock the boat a little. First, some questions. 1) Do we read poets in order to be reassured of their mastery of a particular style – a style which is uniquely and indubitably theirs? 2) Do we read poets in order to find a ‘voice’ we know to be theirs alone? 3) Do we read poets in order to find the kind of technique we know they have mastered and are unquestionably adept at?

If your instinct is to answer ‘Yes’ then Judas certainly does the job. The voice is compelling, the phrase-making pitch-perfect, and the closely observed details of life in Jerusalem are powerfully drawn. ‘Confection’ begins: ‘On Khan al-Zeit / they’re scooping out the spices / into coloured dunes // that loosed into landslides / as the day wears down. / Sweet disputing sour // in the throat, / we’d dodge the crazy / barrow-boys on Sundays // with their shrill / Al-o! Al-o!’ Like many of the poems, ‘Confection’ achieves a perfect lyric moment: Judas’ world is realised through sounds, tastes and imagery, while the consistent use of the eighteen-line form (six stanzas, each of three short lines) offers a ‘go-to’ structure.

But the form exerts a tyrannical pressure over the pacing of the lines which leaves little room for surprise or innovation; similarly, the impulse to lyricise overwhelms the larger dramatic narrative which hovers around the edges of each individual lyric. And while the tension between past and present is sometimes realised with startling skill, the capacities of this temporal play fail to be exploited to their full potential. Many of the poems ‘speak’ in the same register – always a danger when a single character narrates an entire book – which leads to a real lack of dynamic verve.

In my view, Judas’ voice would have benefited from a much greater range in terms of tone, pace, mode, rhythm and syntax. Failing that, a greater number of voices should have been involved in the telling of this story. (Indeed the dialogue poems – which harness the voice of a Jesus-like character – feel like a breath of fresh air, and the discursive energy offers a break from the relentlessly malevolent Judas). To be sure you will be impressed – as I am – by Walford Davies’s technique and mastery of style. But I wonder whether poets have a duty to break their own habits, their own sense of being ‘at home’ in a particular mode. For me, the voice of Judas isn’t sufficiently dissimilar to the voices Walford Davies has deployed in his previous books, and I feel uneasy when the ‘hallmarks’ of what is by now a comfortable, tried-and-tested style sound their reliable bells.

All of which begs the question: on what does a poet’s real achievement depend? For me, the real achievement comes when a poet restlessly searches for the right voices, forms and registers to suit his or her subject matter; when s/he pushes the boundaries of their previous style/s; and when s/he refuses to be content with simply ‘more of the same’. Judas gives us a poet writing safely within the limits of his ‘comfort zone’: in future I’d like something with a little more surprise and audacity.

Amy McCauley has just submitted her PhD to Aberystwyth University. She is the author of a verse play, ‘My Baby Girl’.


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previous review: 1519: A Journey to The End of Time
next review: The Slate Sea



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