Lines written in Snow on Ice during a Blizzard


The Palace of Oblivion, Peter Davidson (9.95, 59pp, Carcanet)


Before I start gushing praise about this debut collection of poetry, I need to lay out my biases. Although I've seen hair nor hide of him for several years, I had the fortune to be taught by Peter Davidson many years back. I remember some fantastic discussions about epic poetry, including on how camp Paradise Lost is and a brilliant, if bizarre, slideshow lecture on seventeenth century baroque Dutch art, as an analogy for Milton's over-the-top approach. I also remember having a strong, though reasonable, disagreement with him about Simon Armitage's poetry. 'Give him more time,' Peter told me. I did. I budged, slightly.

With this in mind, I will now unashamedly declare this one of the most exhilarating debut collections of poetry I've ever read. Davidson's attraction to luxuriant, 'performed' language, in visual art and architecture, is here given free reign to chart territories never before crossed in such style. Everything about it screams yesteryear, while at the same time, line by line, resonating with immediacy and a tremendous amount of emotional energy, ranging widely across real experience and the vicarious lives of personae and characters drawn from a seventeenth century timewarp. Moments of sharp, courtly satire (though it's really the characters on the peripheries of courtly life that dominate the patronned poets, the spies, the explorers and seekers of courtly favour) sit alongside moments of despair and bitterness, driven by a sense of dislocation from locale. I had a strong sense throughout that the many voices were linked by an exile without movement, but the sheer range of the poetry means any attempt to capture all the facets of this diamond are going to end up as futile quantitative assessments. And that would be a pointless approach in this case.

The over-riding feeling I had reading this collection can best be described by an act of theft; the Singh Twins (a kind of post-colonial Chapman brothers, identical Sikh twin sisters) describe their work as 'past-modern' and that seems a perfect description for Davidson's poetry. By time-travelling, unearthing closed treasures locked away in history's archives, questions are raised over how we arrived at where we are; and, of course, the inevitable questions about the world we are in today. You can see this in the first poem's opening lines: 'Lady of cultured pearls, fictitious skies, real shit: / Stirring dust like powdered almonds, movig in sirocco and sacred heraldry' (Prologue to 'The Palace of Oblivion'). Modern diction rubs up against something conjured, self-consciously, from the dust of the past. The image evokes the 'dust on a bowl of rose-leaves' of Eliot's Four Quartets
combined with the almond blossoms of Odysseas Elytis, while the style is reminiscent of Larkin's casual bathos drowning in the aforementioned over-exuberance of Miltonic language.

 The opening section of the collection, the eponymous 'Palace of Oblivion', continues with great panache. Structurally, the ten part sequence, pillared by prologue and epilogue, evokes epic poetry, but also courtly masques. There's a knowing, English humour, a language rife with double-entendre and wit, that gives each poem the sense of being performed, though the dominant trend in the opening section, the masque of the book's title, seems more intimate, letters from a strange and distant psychogeography:

     It is as though we were approaching the end of a fiction of espionage
     Set in the last Edwardian years, amidst forebodings and rumours of
          invasion,
     Greatly preoccupied with darkness and the sea, with docks, foreshores
          and saltings
                     ('V A Choice of Emblems')


     It is as though we return at evening after a journey lasting months or
          years
     (Approaching the gates of the park, mooring the boat at the water-
          stairs)
     To find few works ruined and few things terribly altered
                     ('VII Returning at Evening')

The openings of these two poems sit either side of the heart of the 'Palace of Oblivion', marking both a figurative voyage and return. Both poems, couched as they are in that odd 'It is as though' context, seem wispy, non-existent. Yet they lead to a very definite sense of fear, as in the end of the seventh poem, where the speaker is 'troubled with glimpses and warnings... Beyond which foreshadowings stir as incandescent cities, / Reflected furnaces, towers of combustion, thunder in burning air'. These images seem very real in light of the burning oilfields in Iraq, or the collapsing towers.

I don't want to call 'The Palace of Oblivion' an allegory for war on terror, but it seems that way from some of the poems. At the same time, the sequence's real intentions, at least for me, is a personal journey of loss, or sorrow. The actual heart of the sequence is 'Atalanta Fugiens', in which a scrap of paper is found tacked to 'the wall by the marsh-gate', while Spinola's troops occupy every port of the city. The title is taken from Michael Majerus' book of alchemical emblems, written in Latin and published in 1617 (which, after a quick online search, I can authoritatively describe as beautifully barmy, full of outsiderliness and clearly something the poet has digested).

Davidson's scrap of paper is also entirely in Latin, a gimmick one would attribute to the rather basic showmanship of early Eliot, if not for the fact that the Latin recurs at points of great sorrow. The first occurrence is in the form of an echo-madrigal in 'The Keeper of a Troubled House', which draws out the end-vowels to create a series of depressing chimes, in Latin, such as 'nothingness', and 'without hope'. The tattered message in 'Atalanta...' starts like someone looking for a good time with a strapping young lad, 'fit to copulate with basilisks... to blow manticores', but the boy's reward for answering this classified advert is 'to pass through the palace of memory leaving no trace in its dust... and to go without sorrow amid the burning-glasses and the ruins of Europe.' The later two uses of Latin are laments, cries of shepherds and beggars, sealing the deal on a decidedly heartbroken code.

Though the rest of the book is peppered with odd phrases from European languages, which do borrow Eliot's penchant for the mysterious and alienating intelligent display, these particular poems are translated into prose cribs (which is fortunate for readers like me). It does beg the question why Davidson has buried such key emotional energy in history. Perhaps these heavy bursts of melancholic disillusionment are too off-putting at such length (even Geoffrey Hill would attest to that). The intellectual filter perhaps allows the reader to acknowledge, first of all, the sardonic wit, the linguistic dexterity, the genuine passion for the beauty in the world, and for the Queen of Arcadia.

The second section of the book, 'The Spy's Letters', is a sequence of similar length and tone, striking up more obviously a dialogue with the state of being exiled from one's place of residence, opening with a challenge:

     And how would you suggest that I should live in England in this year

     and how should anyone live in England now?

The answer, 'As a spy. How else?
' is decidedly menacing, evoking the idea of alienation brought on in any society during a war, or the build up to war, where racial and cultural divisions lead to internal scapegoating. The time feels more contemporary in this sequence, though not quite today. The train journey and the last piece, 'Portraits from the Thirties', suggests this sequence is in a pre-war state of tension. Either way, the sense of displacement and paranoia is genuinely disturbing, the letters almost completely bare of life when the narrator describes place, atmosphere always seemingly devoid of people, a land where the scholars are fugitives, London is 'the dead centre of this country'. Even the narrator's 'principals are dead or have run mad through the ruins of their mirrored offices'.

 I could go on. I could try to capture the full experience here, but it's just a lot of pointing at small, isolated parts. This is one of the best collections of poetry I've read in a long time, but also one of the most unified. There's a third sequence, at the end, 'Aberdeenshire Elegies', which marks one arc through the book, from exuberance to paranoia, to a state of muted bereavement. There is far more here, but it is the endless avenues of meaning, the very physical landscapes, the clashing language and baroque imagery, that have drawn my eye back and back to reading this collection. I wholeheartedly recommend you read it yourself until you find as many faults with this appraisal as I have now, knowing I can't ignore The Palace of Oblivion
, but not having the words to express its many wonderful qualities.

       George Ttoouli 2009