Wednesday, March 31, 2021

 This article is taken from PN Review 254, Volume 46 Number 6, July - August 2020.

The Poetry of Kei MillerJohn Robert Lee
     ‘We speak to navigate ourselves
     away from dark corners and we become,
     each one of us, cartographers.’
          The Cartographer tries to map a way to Zion

Between 2005 and 2019, Kei Miller published five books of poetry beginning with Kingdom of empty bellies (Heaventree Press, 2005), one collection of short stories, three novels, one book of essays and edited one anthology, New Caribbean Poetry: an anthology (Carcanet, 2007). His Carcanet and Peepal Tree Press books and his novels, from various publishers, have won important awards including the Forward Prize, in 2014, for The Cartographer tries to map a way to Zion. No mean achievement for a writer just turning 40. While Miller is Professor of Creative Writing and Literature at universities in the United Kingdom and the United States, he is no ‘ivory-tower’ scholar. He maintains an online presence through his feisty and pointed blog Under the saltire flag: small essays about race, gender, literature and Jamaica.

The epigraph sums up the accomplishments of this Jamaican/Caribbean/World author. His prose – fiction and non-fiction – and his poetry, most recently in nearby bushes (Carcanet, 2019), do not avoid the murky ‘corners’ of life in Jamaica, racism in the UK and wider world, personal encounters with religion and gender issues. In navigating away from’ and through our contemporary world, he is redrawing our literary maps. Key contemporaries include Marlon James, Claudia Rankine, Vahni Capildeo, Dionne Brand, Ilya Kaminsky, Danez Smith. While their post-colonial, post-independence, world-literature themes are familiar now – immigration, displacement, prejudice, racist and gender-based violence – it is in their exploration of ‘trans-genre’ forms that they challenge and lead the way in redefining and refreshing poetry and prose. Kei Miller belongs among these writers for whom the world is the audience even as they navigate various dark places and send their cartographic discoveries back to us.

Miller’s Writing down the vision: essays and prophecies (Peepal Tree, 2013) provides glimpses of his approach to writing in his responses to protest poetry, language, religion, political literature, his platform in the literary world. ‘The centre for me is no longer Britain… The centre for me is now the Caribbean.’

He writes ‘a poetry of the self is also a poetry about the community, because that is where the self exists’. He adds ‘I don’t want to lock myself in the tradition of protest poetry – or at least my own understanding of that tradition – because it often holds on to pain and anger and a righteous kind of passion simply for the sake of holding on to it’. And he says this, with which I particularly agree: ‘I tell my students to ask of every poem they write – where is the surprise and where is the music? These two things are integral for me.’ And this: ‘Emotions are hardly ever at the beginnings of my poems. I do believe that poetry, as a finished product, must swell with feelings – whether that be anger, or a poignant sadness, or triumph, or whatever really – but I’m not sure these feelings ever motivate me into poetry. What motivates me is an image I’ve thought of, or even more likely it is because I’ve found a small part of the language of the poem – and that little bit of language, that crumb, makes me hungry for the rest of it and so I work very hard to unravel the rest of that language.’

‘I grew up in the church’, he says; a persistent theme in his work. Pentecostalism, Revivalism, Rastafari and Kumina all have a part. About political literature, he comments: ‘I have my own politics of course… But I do not set out to write political literature and I absolutely do not care for that label.’ His poems exploit the continuum of language registers from standard English to Jamaican patois: ‘I’m not sure I agree that there is any single language of truth in my poems – or rather that one (patois) is privileged… the language I privilege in any individual poem will depend on the persona, the situation they are in, and the story the poem is telling.’

While I am mainly concerned here with Miller’s poetry, his essays expand the topographies of his work: ‘If you ask me why I write stories, or novels or poems, I would tell you it is because things that are real in my country, things that are factual, things that have happened and that continue to happen, have always had for me the quality of the unreal – the texture of fiction… Often times I find there is no need to invent or to create. There is only the need to see, and then to tell.’

His poetry is committed to the ‘nowness’, the ‘thisness’, the ‘here’ of the real, the factual, the past and present happenings he sees and retells. He does so in a voice that has found its familiar tone, its distinctness, a kind of empathetic distance, committed to a map-making that is also aware of, concerned with and moved by the undergrowth, the understory’.


Kei Miller’s first collection, Kingdom of empty bellies, does not explore form or the thematic concentrations that come later. Church experience, with women at the centre, family chronicles, glimpses of slave history, and a dramatic sequence on the loneliness of men (‘Rum Bar Stories’) constitute the book. The poet’s relationship with faith recurs in all the books that follow, but here he hints at his departure from organized religion. In ‘Tongues II’ he writes: ‘Beware of the church woman; her tongue /sharp like serpent.’ Not loss of faith but a growing personal sense of its futility, as a believer’s song bangs ‘against the padlock of His heart’ (‘Off-key II’)And in a poem titled ‘Pentecost’ he writes:
To those of you
Asking bout my fire
Wondering if it gone out
Don’t worry – I just keep it low.

Already in this collection the speaker is ‘standing on the outside’ – the ‘outskirts’ – observing religion, family, society. He discusses his relationship with the religion in these and later poems in an essay entitled ‘Riffing of religion’ given as a talk at Kenyon College in 2012 and reproduced in his essays Writing down the vision.

Miller’s second book of poems, There is an anger that moves (2007), his first with Carcanet, is the first I read. I still remember my initial excitement at discovering this new writer. Many of the poems were concentrated in tight one-stanza lyrics, lines demanded to be underlined: a refreshing of poetry that startled and held my attention.

The book begins with reflections on his first years in the UK, presumably as a student, but the central themes are developed in two sections entitled The Broken. They mark the progression from the earlier book and life. The writer he’s becoming strives toward honesty, his true voice, true self:
If I were to write honestly
I would write about fat,
about close fitting linen shirts
that once hid the soft fact of breasts.
I would write about the love
of men and the fear of stones
which in my country is the same thing…
I would tell you how for months
I stopped writing or opening doors
because it was me, on the other side,
wanting to be let in. (p.22)

I was avoiding my voice,
full and divided like cupboards:
the school I left,
the way I gave up on God,
the way I gave up on drums
which is the same thing…

In a climactic way ‘The Broken (I)’ ends with the declamation of a transformed caterpillar breaking free of its cocoon:
So I break. I break the rule. I break
the ground we will dance on;
I break my mother’s heart…
… I break the body, the bread, the words.
I break the ceiling. I break the bone and the jaw
and the habit of hiding. I break the stone. I break the curse.
They are broken. I am written.

The poems of Broken declare the necessity of brokenness, of breaking, if the new and real life is to appear. If he is to be ‘written’. In ‘The Broken (II)’, we find:
Maybe broken is just the same as being…
Or maybe broken is the way we love.
As if meeting someone else, one soul searches
The other for openings – a way to enter.
… broken is the only way light will enter.

We glimpse too a breaking loose from the regular forms, but generally the stanzas have a traditional feel even as the themes and images, rooted in a confessional style, speak with a new assurance.


With A Light Song of Light (Carcanet, 2010), the extensions of form – prose poems, stanzas that play with sound effects – mark an advance from the earlier books. There are fewer concentrated, confessional lyricsThe book is divided into two main sections, ‘Day Time’ and ‘Night Time’. Some of the poems are several-angled meditations on Light and on Song. The Jamaica Singerman, ‘a member of Jamaica’s road gangs in the 1930s’, who sang while others broke stones, is central to several sequences. One poem, ‘Noctiphobia’is revised and imported from Kingdom of empty bellies. A longer prose-poem, ‘A Smaller Song’, will find a place, reworked, in Writing down the vision, and find an even more concentrated echo in in nearby bushes in a poem titled ‘A Psalm for Gay Boys’.  Jamaica, in setting, folk myth, language, is central.

This is transitional work. It seems like a mid-career pause as the poet consolidates the beginnings, shapes the fragments left from the ‘bruising’ and breaking chronicled in There is an anger that moves. The voice is familiar, as are the recurring themes, and the poetry workings settled. The position, in terms of workmanship and assurance, is held, even as the poet surveys the route ahead and hints at the next stage.


In 2014, The Cartographer Tries to Map a way to Zion won the Forward Prize. The title poem, consisting of 27 sequences, runs through the book, interspersed with related poems that speak to the rhythm of Jamaican/Caribbean speech and poetry, and comment on place names which reflect ‘the strange / ways and names of this island’In this book begins the catalogue of spaces, fauna and flora which continues in the latest book. And Miller experiments further with the form of poems on the page. The personal themes and concentrated shorter lyric runs find place in the dialogues between the cartographer and the rastaman.

The cartographer’s map-making and the rastaman’s commentary provide metaphors for efforts to understand a colonized people, their home-places, their philosophies. The cartographer brings a foreign, secular, scientific approach to bear on the contours of physical spaces; the rastaman tries to show the lived life and history of his people. From the rastaman’s point of view, the work of the map-maker ‘is to make thin and crushable / all that is big and as real as ourselves; is to make flat/all that is high and rolling; is to make invisible and wutliss / plenty things that poor people cyaa do without…’, the imperial mandate and endeavor all over again. The cartographer, empiricist, rationalist, denies this: ‘What I do is science. I show/the earth as it is, without bias. I never fall in love. I never get involved/with the muddy affairs of land…I aim to show the full/of a place in just a glance.’ The rastaman replies: ‘draw me a map of what you see / then I will draw a map of what you never see / and guess me whose map will be bigger than whose? / Guess me whose map will tell the larger truth?’

A parallel theme, interwoven with the dialogue between cartographer and rastaman, is that of language, the metre of speech and by extension, poetry. Referencing two Frenchmen who set out on a seven-year expedition to measure the earth, the poem ‘Establishing the Metre’ ends: ‘And foot / by weary foot, they found a rhythm / the measure that exists in everything.’ Almost unobtrusively, Miller touches a metaphysical chord that finds an echo in the end-of-book discussion on Zion between cartographer and rastaman. And ‘foot’ and ‘rhythm’ and ‘measure’ (or metre) of course speak of prosody and scansion.

Early in this book, in ‘Quashie’s Verse’, the poet asks rhetorical questions. This poem is laid out so that the lines represent the jar which is referenced in the poem: ‘But what now / is the length / of Quashie’s / verse? So what now shall Quashie do – his old /  measures / outlawed, and him instructed / now in universal forms, perfected by / universal men who look nothing / and sound nothing / like Quashie?’ These questions are rhetorical because this poet and earlier Caribbean poets have ‘spoken back’ to the universal men, using their own nation languages confidently.

The language of mapping and the mapping of language are linked themes as Miller searches out the brutal architecture of history’. As the cartographer begins to understand the deeper issues, he says to the rastaman ‘We speak to navigate ourselves / away from dark corners and we become, / each one of us, cartographers’.

The small island’s latitude / of mysteries’its geographies, its ‘roads that constrict like throats,’ and the challenges of the rastaman, lead the rationalist to concern himself with Zion, ‘a place / that is not quite a place’. And he is led to the perennial philosophy of Rastafari and their view of Zion. He cannot plot his way there in the manner of the imperialists, he cannot scheme or trick his way there, but will ‘have to walk good and trod holy’ through many tribulations.

In choosing the Rastafari life-view to counter the Western scientific and political approach to colonized peoples, Miller recognises the twentieth-century Rastafarian movement, born in the Caribbean, as a repository of the roots of our languages and their metres, our folk wisdom, our understanding of community and history, our own valid ways of knowing and reasoning, our home-grown (though Bible–influenced) religion with its humanism and judgement. In section xxiii of the title poem, Zion is revealed not just as a place, even an inner space, but also, ‘Zion is a reckoning day /… a turble day… an accounts settling day’. In section xxvi, the rastaman gives a final sermon on how to get to Zion. Not exploitation, not superior attitudes and prejudices, not capitalist commodification, but ‘goodness and rightness and, of course, upfullness’.


Ever since I heard Kei Miller read from his new book during Carifesta in Trinidad and I read the book itself, in nearby bushes (Carcanet, 2019), I have said that it is his strongest collection. Even stronger than The Cartographer tries to map a way to Zion. A new book throws fresh light on earlier works and shows us even more clearly its accomplishments. The new book is a mature work, grim theme admittedly, and he continues his exploration of form. As always, Jamaica is his muse, his base, centre, the ‘here’ of all his citations – its named places, language, fauna and flora, history, its troubled present.

Among Kei Miller’s strengths is how, in a tightly focused way, he brings image and idea together, with the right balance of feeling, often in short, lyrical stanzas. Increasingly, as he develops, each collection forms a single poem of related sequences. At the same time, each book advances on from the one before, themes and forms developing: Jamaica and its history, fauna, flora and language from which all else follows; his family and his loves; a strong religious impulse that animates his reflections on his early church-life experiences, Afro-Jamaican spiritualities, Rastafari; and, coming to a head in in nearby bushes, his confrontation with the violence that plagues Jamaica.

In nearby bushes consists of three sections: ‘Here’, ‘Sometimes I consider the names of places’ and the title poem, a 22–part sequence. It can be read as a long-poem sequence, with the earlier sections leading to the climactic, concentrated final section. The barely-tamed landscape of Jamaica, principally rural and bush, is the setting of his exploration of ‘the undergrowth, the understory’ of Jamaica:
…Well, my dear,
they are here – in the complication of roots, in the dirtiness
of dirt. Are there stories you have heard about Jamaica?
Well here are the stories underneath.

The book opens with real-time quotes from a Jamaican blogger and a Professor commenting on the term the nearby bushes. In the light of what follows, I wonder if Miller was raising grim, grave-yard irony with the reproduction of these public statements. This is followed by what can be described as an epitaph, giving the names of two dozen persons who had been killed violently and whose bodies had been found in bushes. They had been murdered between 2007 and 2019. If I got the names right, there were ten females and fourteen males, aged between nine and seventy-two. The page ends with ‘& these are only some’. Like many of his contemporaries, Miller’s poems find their inspiration in harsh realities faced by many in our societies. He says in an essay ‘there is no need to invent or to create. There is only the need to see, and then to tell’.

In the poems of the ‘Here’ section he probes the unchanging ‘hereness’ of place as one might investigate a palimpsest for the first outlines. These are the  human, civilizing movements over the neutrality of the space; the flora, minutely described, of the place; the fauna of wild deer which leads him to parallel the foreign deer marooned in the Jamaican hills with African maroons; but, also, ‘There is much that blossoms in these bushes / & much that rots, like Jamaican ladies of the night –  / I no longer mean the flowers… Here where blossoms the knife, / here where blossoms the blade, / here where glistens the blood’.

Even while Kei Miller draws the natural vegetation, the potential menace, the brutality covered in undergrowth, the present reality, he ruminates on the transcendent aspects of space and time founded on ‘here’.  He echoes the familiar words at the beginning of Four Quartets: ‘Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past. /… what might have been and what has been / Point to one end, which is always present.’ This is clear in ‘Here that was here before’, which shows technical, almost gymnastic virtuosity as he plays with a thinking-through of language that shares the properties of physical boundaries, including distance and time. The Eliot-type meditation on time, space, place, take him to a primeval, metaphysical vision rooted in nature, the undergrowth stage for all he will reveal: ‘Here that is here in the now / & that was here in the before / & that shall be here in the after / that shall hold our bodies, our cities, our outdated stamps / in its endless cycle of green & brown & flower & thorn & stone.’

The final poem in the first section is among the most well-wrought in the book. ‘A Psalm for gay boys’ is inspired by a Facebook live testimony of a seventeen-year-old boy. It parallels the poem in A Light Song of Light called ‘A Smaller Song’, dedicated to writer Thomas Glave, which re-appeared in Miller’s essays of 2013 in an edited version. Jamaica is notorious for its brutal treatment of the gay community, and this poem resonates with the De Profundis of Psalm 130 and the pleas of the psalmist of Psalm 46 and similar Biblical cries from the heart. In the format of a prose poem, the lines are separated by dots in bold face. The boy is in a valley of the shadow of death where the images evoke cursings, chasings, lynchings, moving the poem beyond the persecution of gay men to encompass the horrors of racism, refugee displacement and other forms of abuse. The ‘here’ of the nearby bushes, the undergrowths, thorns, overshadowing trees, is a ‘limboed land. a place between places. the ends of the earth’, a here that encompasses the anguished ‘here that is the Hear my cry. O Lord. My Lord. My God. Attend now to my needs’. It is an empathetic poem that raises real suffering above the politics of oppression that feed the news.


The second section of the collection, ‘Sometimes I consider the names of places: 10 micro-essays’, was published in full in PNR 249. The prose poems consider the ironies that occur when colonisers rename places, the psychological intention behind new names, the resistance of landscapes, the efforts ‘to make territories out of maps, as if to tame the too-wild landscape’, the neutrality of ‘the here that could be anywhere, and every place… wrapped by an unbothered sky’. He asks of the colonial, imperial exercise: ‘What did it matter, our own names?  / We are insufficiently imagined people from an insufficiently imagined place.’

In these poems he weaves together ideas of ‘here’, providing an intense focus to ordinary spaces – unremarkable, ordinary bush and hill – where tremendous, consequential things take place, including foreign invasion, slavery, murder.  Always aware of the immanent, he reflects ‘To consider the nearby bushes – is to consider the nameless places, or perhaps the placeless places’. It is to consider also ‘the violence of place’.

The title poem forms the last section of the book with its profound, intense meditations on place, space, history, violence. It will be the drum-and-bass dub-beat finale of a reggae that digs deep into night, into the silent thoughts of a late-night dance hall where anguish, sorrow, pain, loss are rocked away from one spot on the floor. It is the drum-and-bass beat of grief that can find no answer.

Miller’s concentrated style in short stanzas works well. He speaks with the voice of a young woman murdered in nearby bushes. The poem begins with a newspaper report on the murder of the twenty-year-old who is not named. The report is repeated several times using a technique Vahni Capildeo has identified as ‘erasure’. Writing in a 15 September 2019 review in the Trinidad and Tobago Newsday, Capildeo says: ‘ “Erasure poems” start with a “found text” from another source and selectively blank out most of it. This creates a new poem by leaving a spaced-out set of evocative letters and words. Miller’s book of memory plays with erasure, but resists blanking out his sources.’

It is a poem not only about murder, the inability of society to protect the vulnerable, the unimportance of the poor who become victims; it is also a meditation on the experience of death as the poet imagines it: ‘How unspectacular, this business of dying, as if any and anybody could do it.’ ‘And death which had seemed a thing so dark and far away, is / revealed now as splendid, and here – … you had not imagined death as a thing / so wide, so full of acres and sky.’ Faith is powerless before such unreasonable, gratuitous violence: ‘the useless faith of your grandmother who even now / prays that you are coming home… But you will come as a great rattling of things…the way your grandmother’s faith will become rubble.’

Section x brings together, on a final, penultimate note, the earlier contemplations of ‘Here’. ‘That of all places, you should end up here. Here where are the severed heads. Here where are the broken hymens… Here where is the never-reach-home… Here where are the stories lost in the understory… Here where we are pulled into things we cannot speak.’ Because of the violence of place (to which these islands are no stranger,) the nearby bushes, the croton hedge, the dark garden behind the house, a stretch of canefield – a here that could be everywhere, anywhere, nowhere – become the centre of fear-filled lives, the understory where the night, the danger blossom.


Each of Kei Miller’s collections has developed in themes and forms, with varied explorations of Jamaican places, the island’s history, language, religions, landscape. I do not find Kingston the city much in view. He does pass through other cities, but they are not given great attention. He treads the rural roads: ‘The cow roads and cobbled roads / the estate roads and backbush roads’, his people the female worshippers of the small churches, his family, especially mother and aunts, the rural poor, lonely men, abused women and men. After There is an anger that moves, the confessional tone of that book translates into a more nuanced observation of the lives, suffering and deaths of others.

To quote Miller back to himself: ‘every language, even yours, / is a partial map of this world’. He is one of today’s cartographers, his poetry offers to our world a map of its troubled ways, a vision of its ‘undergrowth’, its ‘understory’, which can help, if the coordinates are noted, to steer us clear of the overwhelming and too-prevalent ‘violence of place’.

This article is taken from PN Review 254, Volume 46 Number 6, July - August 2020.


Soul’s very edge and promontory”: Exile and the Kingdom. Hilary Davies.

Enitharmon Press, 2016.

 John Robert Lee

The back-cover blurb on Hilary Davies’ Exile and the Kingdom says: “In her fourth collection…Davies embarks on pilgrimage – poetic, religious, psychological. Using a dazzling interplay of narrative and lyric line, she travels through real and imagined territory in search of answers to the great questions which preoccupy us as human beings.” I would have also alerted potential readers that the love poems to her dying husband must be among the most truly felt in any poetry.

In an interview with Martyn Crucefix for his blog (March 14th, 2017), Davies says of this book that “our pilgrimage through life is in a very real sense an exile but how we approach it, are changed by it and by those we meet and love is also how we may approach the kingdom.” She added, “the central sequence of the book is about the loss, confusion, terror and celebration that the death of one we love occasions.” Concerning the sequence form, the poet remarks that she “found that discrete lyrics, unconnected to any wider context, were no longer sufficient by themselves to allow me to address the themes I wanted to address. I began to think in terms of a broader architectonic for the poems I wanted to write…”

Speaking to Terence Handley Macmath of the Church Times (January 5th 2018), Davies comments on the audience for poetry, “the reader I have in mind is anyone who loves how language structures itself into poetry, and who also believes that this can say something redemptive about the human condition.” Of the religious tenor of her work (she is a practicing Catholic) she says “much of my poetry is a spiritual exploration and more and more so over the years. This, of course covers every aspect of life…and how all this relates to faith in a personal God….the fact that I’m a Catholic influences what I choose to write about. And my writing infuses my faith...”

With reference to a world that can overwhelm with its secular, consumerist indifference to the spiritual dimension, – an editor of an anthology of contemporary Christian poetry states: “some may still question any poetry of religious transcendence in a postmodern age..” That editor, David Impasto, notes on the section he titles “Wayfarers” in his anthology Upholding Mystery (1997): “by circumstance a pilgrim, it seems the Christian not only is rejected as an irksome countersign but is torn by love for a transient world that is both home and not home.” Hilary Davies’ poems are set in her home landscape of the Lea Valley, as well as that of Wales, France and Germany, a Europe for which she confesses great love.

Exile and the Kingdom was one of the best poetry collections I read in 2018. Substantial in content, images and shaped experience, finely observed, unpretentious, she maps her travellings to and through faith, her long love for Europe and her grief at the loss of her husband the poet Sebastian Barker (1945-2014) to whom the book is dedicated. The poems are heart-searched, sincere without proselytizing showiness. In the words of a review of her first collection The Shanghai Owner of the Bonsai Shop (Enitharmon, 1997), “Her language reveals true lyric gifts, while sustaining clear, lucid argument. Out of these poems comes a vision of brokenness transformed.” Indeed.

Her love poems to her late husband are moving, tender-rooted in their grief, even as she seeks to traverse the dark places.

“Grief is orphan, where once there was companion,

The turning to, the gesture, the shared, created world

Staked like a dull rag upon a picket,

A cage of longing hung beside a road.

Grief knows. She is the death in life,

Closer than our own bone.”

She is a fine poet of faith and transcendence in a materialist world which seems largely uninterested in such writing. Her work needs to be better known.


Across Country

“Across Country,” the first sequence of poems in seven parts, traces the beginning of the journey of faith, from childhood to adult resolutions. While Davies describes real journeys through real landscapes, the visionary and transcendent ‘etch the first surfaces of particularity/and settle in our souls.” Going west (to Wales?) “the streets were hollow and strange…The city tipped and hinged, And we crossed over the frontier into a translated land.” The opening lines are reminiscent of Dante’s classic opening of Inferno “Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself/In dark woods, the right road lost…”(Robert Pinsky). “Across Country’s” opening is resonant:

“How it all begins: this is what gets forgotten,

Unwilled and inarticulate, the dark start in the morning,

Being carried by gods out into the starry night.

We are silent to ourselves: no familiar landscapes,

No lintel, inglenook to shape or stable space,

Just the road and its rhythms.”

As with Dante or Bunyan, this journey begins with dark and an image of wilderness.

Like cinema montage, her scenes change from early morning car journeys to a boat crossing the channel to French countryside, “This fugue of difference, this rosary of place,” to “bars and hostelries” near rivers. One of her strengths is her delineation of detail which brings a dramatic quality to the unfolding narratives, and that with reference to both external and internal descriptions.

Martyn Crucefix, in his review of Exile and the Kingdom found there were “passages that stand comparison with the Eliot of the Four Quartets.” Section III of Across Country is one of those where Davies makes a typical Eliot transition of image and thought to offer a meditation on the movement from “fallacy and self-belief” to faith:

“How to distinguish the horizons of vision from our own folly’s chasm?

A book in a bookshop can wring the spell.

I held it there a year, a decade,

Sucked on the arguments of polity and governance,

Sedulous in the maze of fallacy and self-belief.

Very sweet are the seductions of the lamplit room

Whose geometries, unchecked, autarkic,

Unhouse humanity; and luscious the meretricious fruit

Of the ideology tree. A man may squander

His whole birthright in those dark woods.”


An assertion follows with unambiguous clarity:

“The lords of existence

Are neither economist nor philosopher

The Lord of existence

Shows himself not in systems

The Lord of existence

Is the sound behind everything

When everything is still.”


‘Across Country’ is so finely drawn, it could do with a close-reading of its own. The poet searches the tentative beginnings of conversion:

“When does the door open?

How does the ear prepare

For what it does not even know

It cannot hear?”


Love is the Hound of Heaven that pursues this pilgrim:

“So I crossed into church after church that summer,

Thinking of erudition, but beside me trod Love.”


Love, who will show

 “…with open palms the forms

To piece together to learn the inlay of faith.”


With this spiritual experience, the convert will face guilt that “builds a grim tunnel in the soul, Its starting point irretrievable, its end unattainable”; will experience the full weight of self-realisation before a new awareness of the presence of God: “The only way out now is on your belly Under the weight of heaven”; and the course across landscape and ocean and spirit leads “into the absolute inefficacy of anything but faith.” After all is said and done, “Only perdurance delivers. Not one night of weeping, nor the taverns of despair, Nor even the grandiose claims of conscience Suffice in the end.”

As traumatic as the new birth has been, “We are astonished as we turn to rest At the plains and forests and rivers over which we have come,” the pilgrimage is just begun. But like Bunyan’s Christian, there will be companions. This first sequence ends with love: “You came to me as in a waking dream And I knew instantly I had to go the hard way with you To learn how to love better.” So, they proceed: “Out of hope’s slaughterhouse, history, We pilgrims forever come.” This personal travelling with its topographies, is a palimpsest of all holy quests.


Songs from the Lea Valley; In the Valley of the Lot.

At the heart of Exile and the Kingdom are these sequences of poems which present the nitty-gritty of the mundane of the life of faith. Later, in Rhine Fugue, Davies will give attention to episodes of European history and in the final title sequence she will turn to psalms and prayers of her pilgrim’s progress using the form of liturgical or canonical hours, the offices of the church.

Hilary Davies has made her home for almost 30 years in the Lea Valley, on the eastern edge of London. In her interview with Martyn Crucefix she speaks of the cosmopolitan nature of the area, its historical significance to London, its ‘green’ beauty and the atmosphere provided by the river.

While the poems describe the landscape, she finds signposts to faith and its practice everywhere. She hears “prayer’s cadences out of a thousand mouths”; on Stamford Hill, her Jewish neighbor “sits in his garden: Orotund as butter he intones his Torah”; “the geese drive south Trailing hosannas over the estuaries”. Alert to annunciations and manifestations, she sees “Unnoticed under the buzz of our lives Beggars and saints sweep over the land.’ And in Abney Park, the stone “angels are praying.”

Following the best of Francis Thompson or T S Eliot, she provides an immediacy, a familiar recognition, of a contemporary English neighborhood.


“In the Valley of the Lot” is the longest sequence at the heart of the book. It is a “valley of the shadow of death,” a wilderness passage of grief at the dying of her husband, a dark night of the soul where doubts of the promises of faith and hope regarding the after-life are “mighty shadows,” a “dark tide which brings no tomorrow: Sorrow, sorrow, sorrow, sorrow.”

But this mournfulness has produced from its stricken memories some of the most moving and genuinely wrought love poems I have read anywhere.

Hilary Davies’ husband was the poet Sebastian Barker who died in 2014 after a sudden diagnosis of cancer. This love poetry is sharply etched with his dying and death, loss is the boundary she can already see with an acute, impossible desolation: “Ah, that I could fold my arms around time And so enchant her, She would not take you.”

This love is not some idealistic, mystical love between pious fellow-travellers, but sings in the frank, plain statement of the erotic, even as hovering “night’s cloak is cold and everlasting.” No Donne conceit here:

“Do to me with your broad hands

All the things that I would have you do.

I wish you delight from my breast

Arcing through your fingers.

I wish you succor from my thighs

As they learn to bear you. May our mouths

Feed on each other as on bread and apples.

Sweet, salt love, come away.”


The loneliness of sorrow, memories that are still fresh, the unbelieving transition between presence and absence, are not avoided:

“I said to myself, no matter, it is just the sunset

Over the perfect lawns making you melancholy;

Soon he will be by your side again

And all shall be well.”


But the hard reality of separation confronts her:

“Then abrupt on that sea path I noticed the air grown cold;

Like a swift ghost against the wall I knew

That here was an end to dreaming,

That you had done with discovery of what lay ahead of us,

All that we had been was rolling in on the shingle

And the road away from this headland

Led for me only out along its darkening foreshore

Where your love’s face scattered into farewell against the coming stars.”


The images in these poems, drawn from familiar and loved landscape and seascape, echoing classical metaphors, are the shaping forms that hold the love, melancholy, loneliness, despair:

“We are never prepared for this –

Never prepared for the dark lake,

For the boat with its sharp wake

Skimming across the water towards us,

For the immovable sorrow at the land’s edge

Where the waves flicker,

Where at the two worlds’ crossroads

Two mighty shadows meet.”


The notes sounded here to mark grief are true and without self-indulgent discord: “No one told me how like fear grief falls,”; “Grief takes the dearest intimacies you had And hangs them in a row marked never more-“. Despair overcomes faith: “Forward or back mean nothing Since not in this life nor anywhere Will they ever lead home to you.” “The pointlessness Of all that was. This simple thought destroys.” Dante-like, she cries out:

“There are not words to say

What this dull plain is like:

No water, ever; the stones like scurf

In a wind that frets with an unending cold

The stumps of happiness.

What moan breathes from the canyons,

What monstrous understanding

Paradise gives as she withdraws.”


But, lest we forget, as painful as these experiences are, this is a pilgrimage, and the sojourner does not lie down in Castle Despair. She will rise from the Slough of Despond. An ultimate darkness is not the end of the faithful: “How can the bowstring of my being snap When all this was ours?” And slowly but surely, grace comes to soothe:

“Only in this room when I lie on our bed

Can rest from these wild thoughts come – grace’s gift

Greater than flood or vanished continents:

Love of you matchless ever and darling in the palm of my hand.”


Rhine Fugue, Exile and the Kingdom

In her earlier collections, “In the Valley of the Restless Mind” and “Imperium” Hilary Davies had shown her deep interest in European history. In Rhine Fugue she casts a “taper of memory” over her first childhood visits to Germany, the history of Blucher’s crossing of the Rhine in 1814, the Jewish Quarter of Worms and the printing of Tyndale’s New Testament in Worms in 1526. Practical Jewish and Protestant faith under pressure of various persecutions are the inspiration for the narrative poetic meditations here:

“What kind of strength does it take

To cultivate roses in a time of war?

What kind of pilgrimage, to wait?

To kneel against the darkness in a blacked-out room?

To tend, invisibly, the roots of peace?”

Rhine Fugue is the most dramatic sequence of these poems which draws on historical events at the heart of European history. She has a gift for dramatic narrative and this is apparent in descriptions of her personal voyages as well as recreations of the past.


The final title-sequence, in 8 poems, uses the format of the liturgical hours or divine office, often referred to as the Breviary. “They mark out the day and the night, and are thus associated with different states of the soul, different spiritual aspirations, different signposts on the journey of life…canonical hours mark the divisions of the day in terms of periods of fixed prayer at regular intervals.” The present canonical hours, observed from Matins at 2 am through to Compline at 7 pm, used by the Roman Catholic Church, consist of seven, ie, Matins, Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. While Davies starts with Nocturns, (and includes the other seven,) these as a term ceased to be used with Paul VI. Nocturns were sections into which the Matins were originally divided. Prime, one of the early hours, observed at 6 am, was also suppressed after Vatican 2.

So these liturgical hours are essentially times of prayer for the observant. Given all that has gone before, what are we to make of this poet/pilgrim’s version of a Breviary? How has she shaped this traditional religious form to her literary purposes?

In her 2017 interview with Martyn Crucefix, she reveals that this section of the book was first to be written. She also says that she ‘wanted to write something about the stages in my spiritual life up till then, including my conversion to Catholicism.” The structure she chose was “the liturgical hours or divine office…what was especially interesting to me was their symbolism, which is a dual one. They mark out the day and the night, and are thus associated with different states of the soul, different spiritual aspirations, different signposts on the journey of life.”

For this devotee, these closing poems are confessional prayers of self-revelation, anguished contemplation on the lived and suffered coordinates of experience that have taught and shaped faith; they are laments of a modern-day psalmist, marking the hours of “one who, from his night sweats Wakes in the livid hour before dawn and is afraid.” I agree with Martyn Crucefix that they bear comparison with the poems of Four Quartets and I would add, with the best religious verse, ancient and modern. The settings are contemporary, framing a common, recognizable human heart-searching that makes these meditations accessible.

The NOCTURNS section is divided into two. The first opens with the supplicant (kneeling, we imagine, if not prostrate), without dissimulation, pleading in the dark before dawn:

“Lord, let me come again into your presence.

The times are difficult, and night after night

Beneath the door curls the thin smoke of hypocrisy.

Sleep brings no respite but a throng of fretted images:

The rostra talking to the multitudes,

War’s insect engines on a desert wall,

The bulldozed coffins.”


“Doubt’s unlit well” tempts, the seeming unimportant smallness and inevitable end of humanity overwhelms: “What difference does the beetle, struggling with his dungball, Make, when the world’s willed to dissolution and the solar fire?”; the night-time confessional goes deeper into a kind of existentialist absurdity:

“…Then there’s the heartache

At the core of things: attachment, the blank certainty

Of letting go, the arbitrary wing of accident,

Wrong gene or partner, a lifetime bled into the dusty ground

Of non-fulfilment…”

Even the possible answers and solutions to the dilemmas of mundane existence, “the days go in and the days go out The cars and the buses and the trains round about All our doings…The daily bread and the weekly shop” – even those are overthrown in:

“.that night which throws us on our knees

And we lean out, retching, over the abyss.”


And out of the depths comes the cry: “Lord, do not leave me in this dreadful place.”

This is religious verse, well-conceived, well-wrought, of a high order.


I am not convinced that the second part of this section fits well here. It is a reminiscence of a “favourite, mercurial uncle” who may have died tragically. It seems to be an illustration from personal experience that teaches an important lesson, ie “the impossibility of loving begets despair, And despair kills.” But it does not seem to me to carry the momentum of the first section.

The other “hours” develop the theme of confession and contrition, expose “Those innumerable little capitulations to self-love.”, the weeping recognition that “mind, body, soul (were) So penetrated with duplicity we could not even see The canker in our face.”

These confessions are very Augustinian in their frank record of the “road of transgression.” But light breaks over the hours as dawn nears and “Grace falls like rain on a late summer afternoon.” “The travail of the contemplative” is blessed by insights and the opening of the soul’s eyes to miracle: “What miracles In the hedgerows do we pass by, unsaluted?” Indeed, from her cell, keeping the Book of offices, one given to prayer learns that “miracles are a conversation And do not proffer themselves to those who cannot hear.” And while, as the journey completes a cycle and the pilgrim ruefully admits “Hosanna’s the hardest, not the easiest, thing:”, Compline, the last office of the day, brings a certain calm and peace:

“Lord, let your servant at the soul’s very edge and promontory

Walk where the chapel of the fathoms grows

And saints lean from her windows against the night.”


Hilary Davies, in her Exile and the Kingdom has written some of the best poetry of our time. In the words of a blog commentator, responding to a review, she is a “much-neglected poet.” Her work deserves to be better known. Much of this book needs a close, annotated reading, so full it is of deep thinking of faith’s route, weaving of images, dramatic narration, insights into contemporary life and a reach beyond time and place to common human travailings, mediated by struggling ups and downs of this exile. Through such sojournings, the kingdom is built.


I don’t think that many writers and readers today would dispute the statement by the editors of Religion and modern literature: essays in theory and criticism (1975) that a common critical position today holds that “the religious dimension of literature is irrelevant.” In the same book, J. Hillis Miller, in a 1967 essay, proposes that ‘The poets of most value to us are the poets of today, those who can speak to us of our own experience.” Hilary Davies is a contemporary poet who speaks with skill and a true poetic gift about our shared experiences of faith, in a largely agnostic and secular world. She is not writing a tract to proselytize, but through her own journeys, her pilgrim’s progress, which include grief and loss, she shows how belief in the supernatural is possible and indeed necessary if we are to fulfil our human potential in a world of sacramental presence. As derided as this may be by critics, there is something to be considered in the words of Philip Sherrard (The Sacred in life and art, 1990): “But whatever his course, of this the artist must be sure: that only when his art possesses a sacred quality will it present a positive challenge to our technological world and to the degradation of human life which is endemic to it..”. Hilary Davies is a poet who recognizes that there is a “deeper world than this,” and is on a frontline of current poets and artists carrying the banner inherited from many who have gone before and left their pilgrim testimony with us. I am pleased to have found her work and this book.




Hilary Davies’ other poetry publications are The Shanghai Owner of the Bonsai Shop (1997), In a Valley of This Restless Mind (1997) and Imperium (2005), all published by the Enitharmon Press.

John Robert Lee is a Saint Lucia writer. His Collected Poems 1975-2015 (2017) and Pierrot (2020) are published by Peepal Tree Press. His Saint Lucian writers and writing: an author index is published by Papillote Press, 2019


Monday, March 15, 2021

Belmont Portfolio. For Earl Lovelace.

Monday, February 8, 2021


                             Art - The Return. (c) Jackie Hinkson

Pilgrim SuiteJohn Robert Lee


who will come to the red gate with the red mail tinbox
its pillars topped with red pyramids
who will walk past the yellow hydrant
and stare through the closed gate
at the thick variety of garden
wrought-iron barricade round the verandah
who will see the green banana leaf
peering over the grey wall
for who might come through the red gate on Pelham Street?


‘If I feel the night
move to disclosures or crescendos,
it’s only because I’m famished
for meaning.’ – Li-Young Lee

persistent lament of wood-doves
who, who has gone, gone forever?

orange wafer of sun settling to horizon’s eclipse

evenings shuddering with unrequited affections

I would love you with ardent hunger
beyond your name, your ancient eyes, sensual lips
tattoo on your left breast
the inexorable news of your dying

in this hour
in which I love you
I am a poem without a theme
without a clear image of you
a line to follow
a procession of remembrances to metaphor
no half-rhyme rhythms to match ambiguity

going past your old house near the Baptist chapel
and Chinese grocery
the blue estate-wall on my left with its crimson border
trees behind it raucous with afternoon parrots
a cock under the avocado tree crowing for some epiphany
wanting a Creole love song from Philip Martelly and Kassav
to make me recall your sensuous hips
incomprehensible smile perfect mouth
your various infidelities
like the turning familiar corner into which I bend my eyes
alert for unwelcome surprises

how can I love you without you

these November days close with apocalyptic cloudbursts over darkening horizons

who, who has gone, gone forever
wood-doves lament persistently.


  ‘for he looked for a city which has foundations.’ – (Hebrews 11:10)

how can the last way out
not be a dirt-track
moving under a canopy of trees
their dark barks turning white
green foliage bowing over your passing
and somewhere in all that good bush
angels stroll, you are sure, fluting like ground-doves
their wings breezing above like casuarinas
near the beach-stone edge of Pigeon Island –
you gave me this Bible-text card
with that dirt-track road
between green trees
and their whitening barks
when we met in the City of Palms
in that city of refuge, city of priests
and beyond my chaste prayers
my chastening desire
you pressed my hand to your lips
and left it there
all these kind years –
I have kept it in my Book of Offices
all your faithful hours
all this becoming, as they say, one flesh
and it is, I think
a true sighting
on that sacred card with its scripture text
of the last road I want to walk with you
the road that goes my love
to the City of Holy
angels fluting like wood-doves
down the last dirt-track of Earth
beside the grace-filled trees
and their whitening barks.


those who know such things
say our spiral galaxy, planets and further quasars,
the space-time continuum on which they curve orbits
are expanding fast, away from themselves
into some blue-black vacuum of solitary, dark matter –

like those cosmological stars
seems we are speeding away from each other
little time for intimacy of love’s spaces
distracted by widening ellipses of the settled familiar
falling off into dark holes of self-centred universes –

there is a Heaven in which we speed towards each other
through infinite expanses of Spirit
dancing to holy nebulae carrying our names,
to enter welcoming celestial bodies
and an everlasting, ever-extending consummation.


strange old rubble wall
coming through the wet window of the airport bus:
different-shaded, different-sized stones
from sidewalk up to some indeterminate,
abstract, unfinished, uneven top,
looks blackened, as though burned,
and then, more even clay bricks finish the wall
which holds rust and red metal doors –
the humans of Port of Spain
walking past it, the traffic lights and pedestrian crossing
might know who the strange wall is and its story,
is it historical artefact, crumbling edifice forgotten by the council
an unknown artisan’s work…
but it raining, the bus moving slowly in traffic
we look at bridges, torrential canals, white mosques,
bars and billboards cruising under drizzle,
the young people singing Chronixx, and
a category 5 hurricane beating up the Atlantic.

This poem is taken from PN Review 257, Volume 47 Number 3, January - February 2021.


Friday, April 10, 2020

The Passion and Resurrection Canticles

(c) John Robert Lee

The Passion and Resurrection Canticles


John Robert Lee

Easter 2017
Castries, Saint Lucia

The Passion and Resurrection Canticles

(for Charles Cadet)


Prologue: The alabaster flask


Over the bowed Head, the anointing oil of nard
pours from Mary’s broken alabaster flask—
certainly, she filled that room with the fragrant adoration of her Lord;
certainly, even then, some grudged Him that embalming, with their indignant jealousy—
you heard it in the thief’s voice, sneering at the poor;

and the Master, raising His burial, raising her memorial, raises their approaching loss,
beyond the maddening fragrance of the pure
ointment. But the bedeviled thief rose in envy, and over Christ, his bottled hatred broke.



“Who is this, this peasant prophet, wailing shoah on the city?
What is this riot of rags and branches down the thoroughfare?
And why this bacchanal of blasphemy resurrecting from Bethany?
Which Balak sends this Balaam’s foal to mock Messiah?

Where next this din of thieves, this unwashed brood of publicans?
Will they impale the merchants and the bankers and the priests on their hosannas
when they’ve stormed the precincts of the porch?
While their ambitious carpenter withers, as usual, in some forgotten Arimathean sepulchre?”



Bitter herbs, bread unleavened, wine, and lamb slain between the two evenings—
do the twelve comprehend they are settling the last rites of Exodus, sipping the watered dregs of that final Pascha?
And beyond fiction, in the Servant’s holy hands, the betraying heel. And the flat-footed denials. And the splayed doubts. And other such leavenings.

Out of the common dish comes the separating sop to deepen their perplexity.

So there, above some obscure alley in His City, all our wretched story— Eden, Sinai, Golgotha—
is passed over, for His Bread, His Wine, His bitter Tree.

 Later still, such talk under the brooding night! Then prayer, a hymn,
and over the Kidron, into Gethsemane.


What commenced in the other garden begins to end here,
in the shadow of an olive mill by a black brook.

“Behold, We have become like one of them, to bear
their sorrows and their griefs.” Let the wheel break
this Fruit on every tooth and tread. Bruise
the Seed under the trampling heel of the Bull
of Bashan. Pour the sweating barrel
of this agony into the cupping palms of God.


“Ecce homo”

“O Galilean, robed in purple, crowned with thorns,
is this Your estate? Is this Your kingship,
reduced to the scourge of their envy and spit? God born
of man, behold Your truth: silver kisses treacherous palms, shape-shifters
rend their costumes at cock-crow, the Pavement is soiled
by the desolation of Your bloody Purity. Look Carpenter,
is Caesar not adored, is Barabbas not preferred?
See, Holy Fool, You and Your Jews, I wash my hands of You!”


They leave Him nothing but irreducible nakedness—
no fig-leaf girdle, no swaddling cloth, no seamless tunic;
they impale the battered Scarecrow on the Skull’s brow; their final curses
perforate the darkening skin of the sun; His distending knuckles
claw the veil of the God-forsaken air; yet, even now,
He thirsts only for the sour wine at the end of the hyssop branch; stricken
between earth and heaven, His heart opens to a new covenant,
and pours its blood and water on the Father’s reconciling Hands.

Epilogue: PiƩta of Joseph of Arimathea

“He was all scattered, empty-limbed, exhausted, gone,
when I gathered Him off the stake. O my Son,
my Son! I was more Your son than You were mine,
Your tentative disciple, peeping out the Council’s shutters for Your Kingdom.
O my wounded King! Holy, Holy, Holy Child! O my dear,bruised Prince!

O Father, receive Him in our poor linen, swathing His torn
flesh. May these paltry spices herald His approach
to Heaven’s Throne. O LORD, give this Your Servant rest in Your eternal Rock.”


Risen Man

“Have you ever shaken hands with a man who was dead?
Have you ever looked into the laughing eyes of a man who beat death?
Have you ever sat next to such a one and shared his salt bread?
Friend, do you know the incomparable odiferousness of the breath
of a resurrected man? Friend, have you been led in Zion’s psalms
by a voice that scattered the doomed wealth

of Satan’s domains?  Stranger, I have known the encompassing arms
of such entombing and embalming Grace.”

O Lord Christ, that we might,
with hearts' mouths hushed, see You
take the backyard-oven bread
You share with us, see Your hands

raise that plump loaf up into
this day's lavender end,
know with burning, blessed
sight, it's our Master bends

and breaks those dry-crust ends
of breasts of Paix-Bouche bread.

“In Caravaggio’s ikon”

In Caravaggio’s ikon of Thomas seeing Christ
all eyes are locked to the doubter’s firm finger
poking around the torn flesh, under

the strong hand of the Carpenter. Thomas,
Apostle to our secular, mocking, murderous
new age, meeting his worst-case scenario
with the firm grit of flesh under his thumb,
that index of incarnation— incarnation, Immanuel
God is with us — under the impossible rubble,

as we claw at the unimaginable earthfall, Immanuel—
over the body of someone’s son fallen in crossfire,
in shrieking shadowlands of betrayal,

through terminal disorientation of disease, Immanuel.
Because that wound is real, the death was certain,
here, beyond reason, beyond the apocalypse

of private disasters, is something else,
is Life beyond life, beyond heartbreak,
beyond assassination, beyond the tremblor

at 3 in the afternoon, beyond the amnesiac cancer of the mind.
Here, under our finger, is faith, here is hope,
and He asks us, against the brutal heel on the locked door,

the harsh fist of imploding earth,
the shroud covered bier—
“Love one another.”

So, faith is certain

So, faith is certain of tomorrow’s epiphany
but how to meet the apocalyptic moment of now
under fallen colonnades of the Presidential palace

tent cities of cholera and rape and empty-bellied children
the recurring decimation of mud in the kitchen
friends going to dementia, decrepitude and tumours

and in honest mirrors, the apparent dysfunctions,
slipping names, insomnia, gathering pill boxes
and out of reach, envied flirtations with perfect lips,

sloe eyes and teasing hips. Add inescapable
anxieties, dead-end jobs that pay bills,
no prizes, no awards, the country grown strange and foreign,

citizens mocking the devalued currency of art—
so, how to meet the apocalyptic hour
though faith is certain of the promised parousia?