‘Then Spree’ by Nia Davies
-Reviewed by Donald Gardner–
Much of Then Spree, Nia Davies’s first pamphlet of poems, reads like a focussed, if somewhat wayward diary: ‘Look up. Berries suspended in thorns/ are that same rackety churlish: / an overspill of fluster, / my lurching, a leach of sagey green.’ This poem (‘Born in a moody basket’) closes with what seems like a statement of intent for her poetry: ‘What next in my fidgety solstice? / Heart in the headland – observe the invisible wealth.’ The compactness of her work can feel like a kind of shorthand, sometimes rather too tied to personal references to be easy for a reader to follow. At the same time one’s sense that she is a poet with a strong idea of what she wants her poetry to do invites a closer reading.
Another piece, ‘An Autobiography of the Ophicleide’ is an account of a more-or-less obsolete wind instrument, but she makes a point about Darwinian survival in the last lines, ‘But my throb fell flat in the pond of other pipes, / their other useful selves ascending.’ Davies is attracted by the charm of many things that have ceased to be: is her tone one of mourning or celebration? I think the latter, as her work is mostly too upbeat to stay long in the mode of grief. I think of Hopkins’s line, ‘All things counter, original, spare, strange’, and I’d go further and say that there is something of Hopkins’s spirit in her poetry, as if the medium has in her eyes a protective function – to remind us of the validity and worth of non-go-getters in our materialist world. In ‘Barge in the Slug of Slow’, she again reminds us that ‘history’ is a two-speed process:
‘Extinction, they say, could be at first
near stagnant, submerged, like a barge
in a sewer canal that one day comes
unclogged, moving along to the rapid half of history.’
And in ‘The Gun’, a poem about a historic docklands pub of this name, she again takes issue with this two-speed history:
is handcart driven, all the better for its bowels,
previous sorrows and suspect tales.
Across the way, the ever-advertising dome,
that project/folly: land kneed perfectly
in the ribsides to make folk live up
to nothing, from something. …’
These poems don’t always wear her experience lightly, but they do make a tantalizing code of their material, much of which is open to deciphering. Things shine through the lines, and I see a pursuit of ecstasy in her work, that again reminds me of Hopkins. As in ‘I want to do everything’:
‘Bibulous, happy, exploded in the litter
of pomegranate. I want to live long.’
I don’t mean to force a parallel, but Davies’s almost mystical combination of sheer delight and the application of a magnifying glass to out-of-the way detail in, say, a landscape or a city scene, gives her work a similar ethos to his. Also there is her experimental way with language, which is not gratuitous but, as I see it, mystically driven, in that she forces language to reveal things for which it is normally a veil.
I’m not sure which other poets might be ‘sources’ for Davies’s work, except herself. Dai George suggests in the blurb that she is influenced by experimental American work. This may be so, but I was more struck by how individual her voice is. I looked at the early months of her interesting blog, Sky like That, where she has some entries she calls ‘walking diaries’ – in Ethiopia, but also in Hackney and West Wales. They give a clue to her self-shaping as a poet, the compressed nature of her writing and her training as a poet by a close reading of the life around her, city or country. I’d write her up as a promising and seriously original poet who sometimes displays a madcap grace as in ‘Periphylla Periphylla’, which is about a man with a jellyfish heart travelling on the top of a London double-decker.
‘… visible through the greased glass
of the night bus. He travels
sunkenly and half-happy
through a dawdling soup,
the city’s deep midwater.’
It’s some trope, this poem – definitely spare and strange, even, I would say, irresistible.
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