“A Commonplace, Apples, Bricks and Other People’s Poems” Jonathan Davidson and Others (Smith|Doorstop) – book review

Commonplace Jonathan Davidson book cover

“A Commonplace, Apples, Bricks and Other People’s Poems” is a collection featuring some of Jonathan Davidson’s poems along with poems by others that are poems Jonathan Davidson returns to and a commentary, explaining the choice of poems or how they interweave. It starts with Richie McCaffery’s “Brick” with its central image of carrying a brick from your birthplace with you. However, Davidson doesn’t immediately respond with a brick poem, but a few poems about his parents, in “Nineteen Fifty-Six”, he’s looking through an old photo album when his mother volunteers the information that a postcard features a B&B “favoured by the budget traveller”,

“We look at the postcard. Outside
the garden shivers. Mum, I say, this
is the Palace of Versailles, residence
of Louis the fourteenth.

………………………………………….. Is it? Well,
I stayed there with Audrey, my oldest
friend. And she was a Catholic too.
We met at a dance in Liverpool.
I’ll phone her later. Is she still alive?
I think she is. I’ll phone her later

His mother tries to ease the conversation into something more memorable: her oldest friend to cover the mis-remembering of the postcard’s picture. In a way she has a point: friendships are more important than buildings, but that phone call is unlikely to be made. She’s not going to phone while her son is present in case she discovers the number she may nor may not have is no longer in use. A memory of his father is of a man with no sense of direction always taking short cuts instead of sticking to main roads and familiar landscapes in “The Back Roads”,

“I swore I wouldn’t take the back roads,
but here I am lifting my bike
over a stile, wading a ford,
crossing a rifle range; here I am
on the back roads; and that figure
ahead, vaulting a five bar gate
as one shouldn’t, it is my father.”

The slight rhymes of “road/ford”, “figure/father” give a sense of structure that seems to be missing from the relationship with the now adult son following his father’s habit.

Then follows a few poems in the voices of others, here “A Last Letter to Ophelia Queiroz” who was one of Fernando Pessoa’s lovers,

“We have known each other for so long
But now I see you, alabaster still
And pale with want: a singular person
About whom I know little.

I hold your imaginary hand to my lips.
I bite your middle finger and draw-off,
From the warm bone, a small jewel.
Its cold fills my mouth.”

There’s no sense of a shared commonality, just a man who took what he wanted and gave material things to cover an absence of love, of warmth. She outlived him, despite the implication of the poem, a deathly image to symbolise the end of an affair. Keeping with the theme of endings, “Tony (i.m. AW)”, has the narrator keeping busy but disengaged,

“I’ve found things in my garage I didn’t know
were there. It’s not that I needed or loved you
more than was necessary. Every transaction
in the world is linked to every other; more
than faith or hope, we are held by numbers.”

Whatever was looked for, wasn’t found. It’s a gentle poem that discovers loss isn’t a big shift but a thousand small reminiscences, a chain with broken links.

A promised brick poem, which was where the collection started, surfaces in “Utopia”,

“The word Utopia and the brickworks that cast it –
That bloody word on the base of a brick – is making
Bricks to build the houses for the people who need
Houses, and giving food to the hungry and clothing
To the cold, and for everyone the sweet dark taste
Of the blackberries you pick even when the dusk
Is nearly upon you, and you are tired and alone.
Those blackberries and that taste. That Utopia”

“Utopia” was the name of the brickworks, not a word carved into a solo brick, which made it common and universal. Whatever fantasies are dreamt on the prompt of the word “home”, we all have a common need for food and shelter, somewhere to call home, regardless of its lack of grandeur or lack of idealism. Music provides the next prompt for a clutch of poems, “The Silence” was written in response to Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten by Arvo Pärt, and considers silence,

“Roar of obligation and dispatch, of coming
And going, and for Benjamin Britten
Was the great bell tolling and then not
Tolling. And that is what I like best;
The silence that is noisy like the bell,”

A silence that is not quiet but noisy with the reverberation of the noise that has just stopped. A marker of movement before what went before and what comes next. A chance to absorb the sensations and implications of an event in the immediate past. A chance to momentarily stop the world and just be. Or perhaps to let one’s mind drift and memories surface. Davidson spent some time in the Ukraine and “Metro” takes him back to Kyiv and the same,

“The blocks of flats for workers, elderly
Lorries bringing things from somewhere.
It must still take five minutes by escalator
To reach the platforms. The roar of trains
Approaching is the turbulence of centuries.”

The ordinary details build as his memory approaches the platform. Five minutes can seem like forever if there’s a train to catch. But the noise of the oncoming train is familiar not just in the present day but in the past as if a portal where past and present might meet, if the observer was present enough. Davidson insists he’s not a nature poet, but concedes that a walk through woods might be restorative, again the silence after noise recurs in “Quiet the afternoon after rain,”

“What I fear is not the passing
Of time but how still I find myself
At this point in my life, as if
I know there is nothing I can do”

This is the quiet of inevitability, a life following a path that seems predestined. We get older, we remember and value the stillness of remembering. We know the final destination, but not when it will come or what might happen in the path between present and future.

The poems by others: Roz Goddard’s “Winter, Lye Waste” and “Quadratic Equations”, Zaffar Kunial’s “The Lyrical Eye”, Kit Wright’s “Sonnet for Dick”, Jackie Kay’s “Darling”, Mick North’s “Land”, Pauline Stainer’s “Honeycomb”, Helen Dunmore’s “Wild Strawberries”, Ernesto Cardenal’s “Zero Hour”, Catherine Byron’s “Night Flight to Belfast”, Maura Dooley’s “Six Filled the Woodshed with Soft Cries”, Ann Atkinson’s “Padley Woods: June 2007”, Sylvia Kantaris’ “After the Birthday” and Gottfried Benn’s “Listen”.

It is a generous collection, exploring how poems interweave and inspire. The commentary is modest, seeking connection, the links and echoes between poems. The tone is conversational, a consideration of how poems arrive, how a body of work accumulates. In that sense the commentary adds to the poems, as if the collection has been gathered in the aftermath of the flurry of writing, drafting, editing and testing, at the point when the post composition quiet allows for connections to surface and themes to emerge.

“A Commonplace, Apples, Bricks and Other People’s Poems” is available from The Poetry Business.

Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

The Significance of a Dress banner displayed at launch
The Significance of a Dress banner featuring book cover

One Response to ““A Commonplace, Apples, Bricks and Other People’s Poems” Jonathan Davidson and Others (Smith|Doorstop) – book review”

  1. “Other Shepherds” Nina Kossman (Poets & Traitors Press) – book review | Emma Lee's Blog Says:

    […] then made sense to write her poems as a response to Tsvetaeva’s. This approach is similar to Jonathan Davidson’s in “A Commonplace, Apples, Bricks and Other People’s Poems” (click title for my […]

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