Justin Jones reviews Judas, Damian Walford Davies’s latest collection of poetry whilst experiencing a ‘rigidly orthodox’ Spanish Holy Week.
I’m lucky enough to be writing this on a clear blue Good Friday morning in Seville; the cathedral bells are booming out from its enormous tower that was once a minaret. Writing a review of Damian Walford Davies’s latest collection during Easter seemed obviously appropriate. However, reading it while spending Semana Santa in Seville was an even more powerful experience. Here we were in a city that had Moorish roots overlaid by a militant Christianity, a city that celebrated Easter with elaborate, even faintly disturbing parades and uniforms whose representation of the events of Holy Week was rigidly orthodox. One figure from the Easter story was missing, however, among all the floats, incense, candles, crosses and costumes: Judas Iscariot.
Judas has been called an ‘imaginative map of hostilities’, a setting straight of records. Damian Walford Davies is not the first to explore Iscariot’s fate; Brendan Kennelly’s Book of Judas has explored some of the same territory. Perhaps one is also reminded of Duffy giving a voice to the marginalised figures of literature, history and religion. And Judas is, of course, probably one of the most marginalised, vilified figures in history, a hate figure represented as a convenient scapegoat in orthodox Church teaching. In Davies’s collection, Judas inhabits another city which exists as an urban palimpsest of Jewish, Christian and Muslim influences and which is represented here very much in ‘historical stereo’ where past and present conflicts overlap.
This sense of overlapping times and traditions can be seen in the shifts of registers to be found in ‘Judas’ (something that, again, one might find in Duffy’s poetry, for instance), a collision in language between the sacred and the profane.
Such a collision is in evidence from the off, where, in the poem ‘Valley’, the narrator says he knows his ‘scrip-/ture’, the teasing enjambment reflecting the artificiality (and perhaps, the partiality) of the gospels. Judas has been pigeonholed by his representation in Church doctrine, trapped in a metaphorical valley of Hinnom or in the three line stanzas which rigidly structure all of the poems in this collection.
The following poem, ‘Denominations’, seems to be as much a reference to different religious traditions (the ‘unbuilt minarets’ of a future Islam) as to the infamous thirty pieces of silver. Tradition has painted the betrayer of Christ as ‘gross’ but Davies’s Judas needs to ‘put you straight’ on that one; all that he’s got is ‘loose change’ rather than blood money. It also suggests modern parallels to such marginalization; Jerusalem continues in our own day to be the stage for cruelty and betrayal. The historical Judas sees a modern city ‘wane and wax to pixels.’ Meanwhile, the ‘gospel’ of the West Bank’s ‘Separation Wall’ suggests that what seems to be righteous truth in the eyes of the State of Israel is not the full story.
As far as Christ’s mission is concerned, Davies’s Judas is keen to fill us in on what really happened. Indeed, he appears here as the disappointed disciple at times, frustrated with a Christ whose slippery relationship with language seems little different to the shifty Iscariot who admits you ‘can’t know lies’ unless ‘you’ve heard me out’. The liar and traitor recognises these qualities in others. Jesus promises jam tomorrow during the Sermon on the Mount but, as Iscariot prompts him in one poem, ‘you’ll have to tell them when’ the meek will inherit the earth exactly. Christ is all ‘Rhetoric’ as a poem of the same name says; Christ, or ‘The Word Made Flesh’, promises ‘just words, words/words!’
There’s actually almost a sense of Christ’s mission being a mere performance. His triumphal entry into Jerusalem is rather underwhelming for the audience of ‘stony hearts’ or the Roman soldier who comments that ‘back home we do/triumphal entries too;/larger, though, with elephants’. This in contrast to the disturbing imagery of ‘Armageddon’ where Judas dreams of the Messiah re-entering Jerusalem and the final resurrection, when the dead rise again, ‘thrashing through soil’. ‘J. Wept’, like Duffy, takes the story of Lazarus in a different direction, with the raising of the dead being compared to a boxing match where Christ ‘flail(s) and punch(es) the rockface’. Who, we wonder, is the ‘J.’ of the title? ‘Kosher’ meanwhile depicts the disciples putting out to sea ‘theatrically’. In both poems, Judas stands apart from the chaos of ‘hollered soundbites’ and ‘punchlines to his latest/prayers’. The enjambment in both poems once again teases us with a collision of registers and of historical moments.
This is an old story and is put into the context of modern conflict and timeless violence throughout. ‘Gnosis’ ranges from the ‘shock/of lambsblood in the gold/stones of the temple court’ to two women air kissing ‘in the lobby/of the Sheraton’ or the ‘uzi toting/trooper’ of Intifada-torn contemporary Jerusalem.
Judas, though, despite the fate which the Bible says awaits him, is something of a survivor. In ‘Stellar’, he makes it to midweek at least, ‘neither beaten up/nor born again’. While there seems to be little he can do to break out of the ‘patterns’ of the stars or his allotted fate, he sees the airplanes attempting to break those patterns, ‘heading out transjordan’ (to some kind of Promised Land?), hoping for some kind of refuge in exile, a ‘runway/east of Eden’.
Ultimately, Judas knows his role in posterity, as it says in ‘Compline’ (a title which in itself is suggestive of ritual). He needs to move on. Those disciples who towed the party line are described amusingly as the ‘rump’, upon who ‘strange tongues of flame’ descended; Judas ignores this Pentecostal visitation and hits the road. He’s braced, as he says in the closing words of the collection, ‘to be/the dark conductor/of your lightning strikes’, the ultimate scapegoat and outsider. Such lightning strikes may emanate from God, the church or orthodoxy generally; perhaps it could also allude to the dehumanizing of Judas and the Jews generally or to the current fate of the Palestinians.
Davies’s collection is highly suggestive and moving. In its beautifully crafted way, it explores alternative representations of Judas, whose voice also speaks for the marginalised or silenced. In doing so, the modern day plight of victimised nations and individuals haunts this collection as much as the blood guilt laid at the door of the Jews and of Judas himself. Damian Walford Davies’s Judas is a character who knows many kinds of betrayal, and not just his own. He may invite suspicion at some times or laughter at others; perhaps the nazarenos of Seville would disagree with me but he also arouses genuine pity. It is a tribute to the beautifully crafted writing here that he’s brought to life so convincingly and speaks to us so clearly and discomfortingly across two thousand years of ignorance, treachery and bloodshed.
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