The poetry of Rowan Williams is full of moments when the known world becomes translucent and lets in an unfamiliar light. Sometimes, this happens when watching someone – a child, perhaps – fall asleep.
…sleepy yourself, impatient and resigned at once,
and out of nowhere come the pictures. Sitting
beside a well, waiting for the dark gulp
of a dropped penny.
In their simplicity, these lines, from ‘Bedtime: For RMW after twenty years’, tune the reader into a state of stillness. That “dark gulp” – is it heard as an echoed splash, or felt as a constriction in the throat?
Read aloud, it is both. These “sense pictures” are sensual-plus: the ripples of that dropped penny spread beyond the limits of workaday perception.
Williams has described his poetry as “non-secular” rather than “religious”, one way of saying that his day jobs – Anglican priest, theologian, Archbishop of Canterbury (2002-12), Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge (2013-20) – are quite separate from his calling as poet.
The public man ultimately failed in his efforts to find compromises acceptable to warring worldwide clergy, but the traits – a seeker’s unworldliness, an acute awareness of alternatives – that thwarted the church politician are the poet’s strength. Raised bilingual in Welsh and English, he knows there is no one fixed way of phrasing any statement. There’s more, much more, if we had ears to hear, eyes to see: that is the Williams credo.
This could be a recipe for sub-Blakean mysticism, but Williams the seeker has inherited a compass from the writers he loves – George Herbert and RS Thomas (a Welsh poet) in English, Waldo Williams and Ann Griffiths in Welsh. The stand-out works in Collected Poems have a spareness that speaks of pressure, tight as drumskins. Take ‘Emmaus’, a dramatic monologue from one of the two disciples joined by a stranger on resurrection day.
Out of the rising white dust, feet
tread a shape, and, out of step,
another flat sound, stamped between voice
and ears, dancing in the gaps, and dodging
where words and feet do not fall.
The uneven rhythm, repetition, syntax, the ah-ah-ah of “stamped”, “dancing”, “gaps” all combine to convey what cannot be directly said: an absence becoming a presence. “Between us is filled up, the silence/ is filled up.” Finally the supper table too is “filled up”, and “a solid thumb and finger tear the thunderous/grey bread.” What provoked that magnificent “thunderous”? Revelation, yes, and images of mighty divinity, but also the lines’ own music: thumb, tear, us.
Although he generally avoids the personal note, there are rare – and witty – flashes of autobiography: ‘Alone at Last’ is a litany of all those present when the speaker and his wife have seized a “space the size of sixpence” together, including “my last four girlfriends, me at eighteen months/ my anima, you when I met you, myself/ at sticky sixteen, you as I want, you/ you in my ambiguous dreams, me as you want me”.
This book brings together five volumes of Williams’s poetry, published over three decades, including a brilliant sonnet sequence on 10 Shakespeare plays, elegies for heroes, relations, disasters (Simone Weil, lost parents, Nagasaki), works celebrating Eastern Christian icons, Jerusalem, Welsh landscape and history.
They all reward close reading, but the excitement of this Collected Poems – and the reason poetry lovers, even those familiar with Williams’s verse, need it on their shelves – lies in the 25 new poems that compose the book’s last 10th. Here his attention falls close to home: on the tattoos of fellow Northern Line passengers, or in “Cranmer”, on the recantations of his martyred predecessor, whose skin he imagines as re-used parchment, rubbed smooth with pumice, scraped with knives, held up to the fire. The sense that seems to matter most is touch: bodies now are as books to be read “slowly, uncertainly, turning back often”.
Above all, there is tension here, a feeling that something barely contained is about to burst. A freshly vaccinated speaker waits in Splott community health centre, where “the wall looks back at us, a patient goal/ that waits to be touched, waits like a gong for striking”. Inside an unnamed church in “Easter Sunday 2020”, God, also unnamed, is told – in some rage – to keep his distance.
I don’t want what I know,
I don’t want thick air,
the breathless damp neighbourhood
of voices and beating words
The phrase “a tall man’s length”, repeated three times, is both the two metres of Covid rules, and the dimensions of a grave. Pick up this book carefully: it may change the way you read the world.
Susannah Herbert was the executive director of the Forward Arts Foundation. She sits on the board of Modern Poetry in Translation.
This article first appeared in the December 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald.Subscribe today.
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