Monday, 22 March 2010

Suit Of Lights - Damian Walford Davies

Seren Books, 2009

Sometimes, writing a review, you struggle to find a way into it, a place to start. Not so here - by the end of the first line of the first poem, Bee, Walford Davies has given you a major talking point, one that you find yourself returning to again and again in the course of an always entertaining and thought-provoking book.

Let's have a look at the first two lines:

Bumble or honey? I couldn't tell, not be-
ing an apiarist...

See what I'm talking about? Walford Davies breaks the line halfway through 'being', turning what might otherwise be a mundane sentence into a pun. It's a device he repeats at regular intervals throughout this collection, and I still can't make up my mind how effective it is.

On the plus side, I have to admire a poet with the panache and sheer guts to do that on the first line of the first poem of his first full collection. And initially, it works. There's the pun already mentioned, and later in the same poem he breaks the word 'weight' between lines. Almost impossible to read, you might think, but in fact it works well in the context of working with something fragile, tiny, "a fraction of an ounce".

There are times though, later in the book, when it starts to feel like something of a tic, an attention-seeking gimmick, even. At best it can seem pointless ("depart-/ment", in Plague, for example), at worst irritatingly distracting. It's not necessarily going to be a deal-breaker, a Marmite factor (it wasn't for me - as I say, I'm still undecided about it, but I liked the book a lot), but you will find yourself thinking hard about it. And that, to be fair, might be reason enough for Walford Davies to use it.

For the most part, he's a broadly mainstream poet, usually at his best when dealing with subjects drawn from history, landscape or art (some of the more domestic pieces felt a little underwhelming, or at least less essential). Two things, I think, really set him apart from the pack, though.

One is the way that, despite most of his poems being on the short side (and even the longer ones tend to use short lines, always giving them an airy, light feel), his language is satisfyingly rich, dense with allusions and, yes, more puns. It goes without saying that a poet ought to relish the sound, the shape, the weight of words, but it's not always as obvious that they do as it is here. The result is extremely readable - while Walford Davies is coming from an academic background, and is never shy of using his enviably wide knowledge, this is poetry that's anything but difficult. On the contrary, it's the sort of book you might find yourself reading in one sitting, alternating between chuckling and furrowing your brow.

Secondly, there's the fact that Walford Davies seems to be a very patient poet, one who's willing to take time to build up a cumulative effect. That's especially evident in the many sequences - Kilvert, The Ideal City, Salt Islands and Aerial were all particular favourites - and in recurring images, such as the "suit of lights" of the title, linking disparate scenes and characters.

So forget my initial reservations about the line-breaks. Walford Davies deserves kudos for trying something different. He deserves even more for a collection that's as rich and well-achieved as any I've come across in a while.


Jane Holland said...

I loved Suit of Lights. Such a brilliant debut, quite the most interesting and exciting I've read for years.

But given that so many poets at the moment seem to be praised for writing just like someone already known on the scene, or just like everyone else on the scene, will Damian Walford-Davies get this book on any prize lists?

Matt Merritt said...

It does surprise me how little attention it's received. Seren are usually one of the more high-profile small presses, aren't they?

It'd be a shame if it didn't get wider coverage. I enjoyed it a lot.