REVIEW by Suzannah V Evans

NWR Issue r19

All Fours

by Nia Davies

Nia Davies’ peculiar and witty All Fours is an interrogation of language and sexuality, psychoanalysis and gender, violence and the body, and the values and meaning that we assign to each. Her poetry is surprising, strange, experimental, and sometimes difficult to get to grips with, although wrestling with her unusual lines is as entertaining as it can be frustrating.

The collection opens with the poem, ‘About Me’, although in Davies’ riddling style, we learn little about the speaker. What the poem does point towards is her interest in words – their sonic resonances and intercrossing meanings – and listening. The poem features various sounds, from an alarm ringing to ‘the slosh of the roads in the distance’, and the poet plays singingly with the acoustic overlaps of words: ‘I would think selkies, think skerry calf’. The poem also shows an intermingling of senses. ‘I opened one eye in the dark, / then someone braver opened both,’ the speaker declares, before noting ‘I would listen through lids.’ The latter phrase, with its description of listening through folds of skin, suggests an opening up to listening, or a listening with the whole body.

There is certainly much to listen to in All Fours. Many poems address sound, or end in descriptions of ongoing sound, so that the third section of Pantheon resonates with ‘Still chiming, // still the chiming,’ while ‘Of course he thinks part mythic’ asks ‘How do you install a bell? Swing on it,’ before ending on an ‘oh’. The Fourth Riddle, or ‘no riddle’ as it is subtitled, ends similarly, playing on the silent Turkish letter ‘ğ’:

yumuşak g – no sound but its function
its function – ah ah
hold open your mouth
oğ oğ oğ

The beginning of the poem, rather than courting silence, plays on an excess of plosive sound: ‘not bare not broken / not broken bracket, / no blanket.’ Silent slashes – ‘/’ – also run through the poem, acting as if to punctuate the speaker’s thoughts beyond the line breaks. When the speaker comments ‘oh, help my poem has no meaning / or backbone,’ I couldn’t help reading the forward slashes as mini backbones, propping up the poem and contradicting Davies’ line.

Elsewhere, there is an entire section devoted to listening, entitled simply ‘Listen’. It is short, with just four poems, suggesting that it contains Davies’ most concentrated meditations on sound and hearing. It opens with the lovely, and liltingly titled, ‘A word in your shell-like’, which begins with the speaker ‘Bed-worn, tied to the auricle / pull of strange flowers.’ While the title pictures ears in relation to shells, here it is flowers that take on the form and shape of ears, suggesting that plants, shells, and humans are all intricately wrought products of nature. The poem ends with several delicious lines, including ‘Purring wonders / come out of you spoon-eared’ and the tender remonstration ‘Old soft lobes, you really test me.’ ‘Old soft lobes’ is a wonderful address, conjuring images of the velvet ears of dogs, and one of my favourite lines in this odd and rich collection.

Long Words, the section towards the end of the collection, probes ideas of language, taking very lengthy foreign language terms and riffing on their meaning. ‘The hatch a bullet flies out of when exiting a tunnel,’ the translation for its Estonian equivalent, and the first poem of the section, builds on the references to sex and the body that are scattered through All Fours, questioning what the title’s ‘tunnel’ could represent:

and also tubes and pipes and these
things often also refer to women
but men also have pipes and little or large holes
with varying entrances and exits
it’s just women get entranced or exited very publicly
often live on the internet

Davies interrogates why ‘entrances and exits’ should be thought of primarily in relation to women, just as elsewhere she questions ‘Does everything pointy / have to be phallic?’ (‘You will never guess my name’). The poem’s awareness of the unequal treatment of men and women’s sexuality – in this case in pornography, where men are portrayed as having agency while women ‘get entranced’ – prepares us in some way for her most hard-hitting poem, ‘the most emotionally disturbing (or upsetting) thing.’ Based on a Tagalog term, the poem centres on violence towards women, with the speaker questioning why she is so much more disturbed by reading the novel 2666, with its depictions of violence against women in Mexico, than hearing about statistics ‘from my own island’: ‘In Britain a woman dies pretty much every 3 or 4 days at the hand of a man.’ As the poem’s long lines unfurl, we learn that the speaker’s school friend was ‘beaten to death by a boyfriend’: ‘it is certainly upsetting that he had already been charged with assaulting / a previous girlfriend prior to murdering my classmate,’ the speaker notes, before questioning how far we have to go before male violence is challenged:

it’s those cases of assault, rape, harassment, psychological torment, etc, which
hardly ever get much justice
because evidence seems to be a massive problem in these cases,
whereas when the woman is dead
well that’s quite enough evidence

The poem is difficult to read, its lack of full stops propelling us through until the end, but Davies is adamant that we should read, think, and feel disturbed by violence against women. Men also have a responsibility to understand and help to counter this threat against women, the poem implies, and the speaker lends 2666 to ‘Sean’, noting that ‘of course i feel bad that he is about to be disturbed / but in some ways i feel he should be disturbed.’ ‘The most emotionally disturbing (or upsetting) thing’ also recounts the ways in which culture and literature allow us to analyse and consider events at one remove: the speaker comments of real-life events that ‘i don’t tend to contemplate them reflectively like i do with films or books / i am too upset at the time.’ The poem is dedicated to Natalie, the speaker’s murdered school friend.

All Fours is challenging, but its content, as in the above poem and others such as ‘Dear Diary’, which addresses the socialisation of young girls, is urgent. The sprinklings of oddity that run through the collection – from the delightful lines ‘Personality-wise, I said, I wanted to be a mismatched underwear set’ and ‘I can’t help the way I feel, I said, especially when it comes to spanking’ in ‘Mossy Coat’ to the weirdness of ‘love is not really a buttonhole or a mouse / but I’m sure comparisons have been made’ in ‘Poem with sex’ – add spice and humour to this most quirky of poetry collections.

Suzannah V Evans is a poet, editor, and critic. She was born in London and studied at the universities of St Andrews and York. Her writing has appeared in the TLS, Eborakon, the London Magazine, the ScoresTime PresentTears in the Fence, and elsewhere.

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previous review: All That Is Wales: Collected Essays (Writing Wales in English)
next review: A Bright Acoustic


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