REVIEW by Dai George

NWR Issue 99

Then Spree

by Nia Davies

Then Spree_Nia_Davies

Full disclosure, part one: I go to the same writing group as Nia Davies. Over the past few years, we’ve shared many a post-workshop pint and have come to be friends. Part two: a compliment from, uh, Dai George adorns the back cover of Davies’ recent pamphlet. I would point out that it isn’t a solicited blurb, but a quote pulled from an essay of mine – one in which I did seek to be objective and had no obligation to talk about Davies at all. All the same, from these two details you’d have warrant enough to dismiss me out of hand as a fatally biased back-scratcher. I’d rather not confirm this suspicion by giving Nia more effusive copy for future dust-jackets, but I did want to make a few neutral (ish) remarks about how I read her strange and very exciting poetry.

It might be a truism to say that good poets listen to interior voices; that they translate the erratic, elliptical and private messages of the subconscious into something approaching public language. Davies conforms to this expectation but does so unusually, in that she insists on the physicality of the process. Several times in Then Spree, Davies appears to act as a versifying ear, nose and throat doctor, peering into the head’s cavities and inner organs for inspiration. ‘Chamber for a Clamping Skull’ sets up a tingling vision of the body in a state of heightened sensitivity, somewhere between agony and epiphany:

Polished sinuses snap. Then the synapse crossing flicks,
a vibrato on the nerve locks wavering through the skull.

A knock on the bottom of a dry pan, sound makes ridges
on the brain’s reef. Consider the curious usury of pain....

With a neat sonic twist, the first line collapses the distinction between physical and mental event, as ‘sinuses’ (a tangible organ) turn to ‘synapse’ (microscopic, of the brain) via the linking sound of ‘snap’. From the poem’s mention of an ‘apothecary’ and the speaker’s retreat to ‘a bedroom bordering on the millrun’, it seems that this is an oblique account of a period of actual illness. If this is the case then physical ailment should take narrative precedence over mental turmoil, as the trigger of the poem – but very easily it could be read the other way around, with the body’s pains standing in as a metaphor, almost, for the acute sensations of a restless mind. People will inevitably read Davies’ work as ‘challenging’, simply because it resists linear understanding. I can hardly dissent much from this view, but it would be a mistake to reduce Davies’ difficulty to being a purely cerebral, linguistic matter. It is also musical and emotional: her poems require you to spend time in a dizzying and counterintuitive psychological terrain, where the traditional balms of poetry may not be forthcoming. It is the poetry of earache and ‘electric sweat’ (‘Barge in the Slug of Slow’).

Another important factor in this author’s poetry is its political engagement. At its most explicit, this comes out in the Thatcher bashing of ‘in the year ninety’, though, again, it’s hardly a straightforward matter. Where one might expect agitation and rage, Davies delivers the pamphlet’s single nostalgic poem, a reminiscence to a childhood where

we knew about sadam and maggy
and out out out

and oi,
we say no
to texaco....

As someone of a similar age, who grew up with a similarly left-leaning family, and who even remembers being festooned with a rosette for a spot of local electioneering before the John Major victory of ’92, I find this poem’s sepia-tinged agitprop to be deeply moving and unexpected. It wasn’t until reading it that I realised how I had the same fond feelings for that politically bleak time, simply because it was the time of childhood. When you’re a kid, the passion of your parents – even the anger – strikes you as paradoxically comforting and exciting. Davies’ poem understands this, and should stand as a key ode for a certain type of twenty/thirty-something child of Thatcher – the type who wishes dearly that they weren’t.

I promised to be neutral(ish), and for the most part this pamphlet assists me by being considerably more poised and measured (if not neutral) in its politics than ‘in the year ninety’ may suggest. ‘The Gun’, an East London poem very much in the mode of Iain Sinclair’s recent anti-Olympic, anti-gentrification prose, is withering about the current state of the capital’s Docklands and ‘the ever-advertising dome, / that project/folly’. ‘Barge in the Slug of Slow’ begins by examining ‘the money hives all englittered’, which is as good and pithy a description of the Square Mile’s vainglorious architecture as you’re likely to find. It finishes, though, with a more universal vision of ‘a barge // in a sewer canal that one day comes / unclogged, moving along to the rapid half of history.’ I can’t figure out if this is a troubling image of humanity accelerating towards its demise (‘the rapid half of history’), or a promising one, where the barge represents progress and human potential, finally released from the ‘sewer canal’ of latter-day capitalism. It is typical of this radically underdetermined collection to leave us disoriented and guessing, wondering if we’re doomed or saved.

Dai George is a contributor of NWR print and online content. His debut poetry collection, The Claims Office is published by Seren in October; he also has two poems, 'Narwhal' and 'Bombshell', published in the current issue of NWR, Teaser_from_Narwhal.


previous review: Beyond the Pampas, In Search of Patagonia
next review: All the Souls, Stories of the Living and the Dead


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