Lightning Beneath the Sea is Grahame Davies’s first single collection in English. The fact that Davies primarily writes in Welsh does not get him off the hook when he fluffs a line; you only need to read a few poems from the book to know he is adept when it comes to writing poetry in English (the poems served with a subtle American flavour), though some were written in Welsh first and then translated. But anyway the book gets off to a solid start with a few sea poems, written in a long rambling style as if the poet is with the reader in person, telling a story. This technique works well with the first batch, but not so much when he tries the trick again deeper into the collection.
With a look at modern fishermen, ‘with gasoline, of course, not sail, / not stars and sextants now but satellites,’ the opening poem, ‘The Hunt’, ends with the lightning of the title. In ‘Shoreline, New England.’ there is a more personal touch to the day at the seaside:
We take a narrow track towards the shore
between the reed beds and the marram grass,
not thinking much, not really needing to,
drawn by the ocean’s vast imperative,
the great sea that turns thoughts to grains of sand.
And it isn’t that the reason that we come,
when reason fails? To face an element
we cannot live in, and to feel alive?
In ‘Cromer Pier’, he describes a life beside the sea, a life of ice cream and life-boats. If these poems end in cheesy fashion, the sentimentality overpowering, not subtle enough, these blips are eclipsed by the gems which come before:
In the fair,
the carousel’s stiff, painted cavalry
revolve to music never heard elsewhere,
and pennies rattle in the dark arcade.
The nearness to the edge, the nothingness
that makes all things that live seem more alive,
perhaps that’s why we come.
The next batch of poems again come armed with a running theme, this time books. A few sum up the delight of finding books in charity shops or stalls, ‘shelves out on the pavement / for books not worth the stealing’. The poem ‘Dangerous’ is particularly colourful and entertaining. Other poems muse on the moments we watch others reading, sometimes an event in itself, albeit a momentary one. In ‘Reader’, he spies, every morning on his way to work, a woman in her living room always reading. She reads so often that when he returns she is still visible:
I see her there, her hand and head unmoved:
a good three hundred pages, I would guess,
she gets through every day. I envy her:
her solitude, her lust for literature,
And it isn’t just that the majority of people who read this collection will, no doubt, be able so easily to relate to these observations that makes this such a triumphant poem; there is far more going on than the lady reading, the narrator noticing. Reading and writing are a pleasure for many but while indulging in these pastimes we are ignoring the world, even if it is the world we are reading or writing about. This might even be the reason that some read so often, to escape, to dream, though of course this doesn’t always have to be the case. Davies, though, is of the mind that this indeed is the case:
Better, of course, that we should never meet,
never be disappointed. After all,
is that not why we read: to spend our days
with paper, not with people? People fail.
The only true perfection is the page.
Written, or read. No company compares.
We keep our back towards life’s window, while
we use its light to read our stories by.
This kind of observation is Grahame Davies’s strength (a similar curiosity and longing of solitude appears in the poem ‘Transmitter Stations’, another highlight to look out for). His weakness, however, is just as present in Lightning Beneath the Sea, appearing mostly in the form of villanelles (there are six; surely even Felix Dennis wouldn’t include so many villanelles in a fifty-poem collection). Davies likes to rhyme; he likes a structure that is simple and obvious. The combination of these two elements don’t always end in calamity, but it’s a perilous path to take and Grahame Davies doesn’t always navigate well in the treacherous conditions.
These poems, in his hands, don’t reach the depth the longer, less-artificially structured poems have. Though arguably he would have been wiser sticking to the latter style, there are some exceptions, moments when the rhyming, neatly structured poems work their magic. In ‘Departed’, Davies puts a new spin on bereavement. Or, put another way, he tells the truth, a truth usually buried in much the same way as the deceased:
They touch our lives much less than we suppose,
the dead. The ones who swore they’d never leave,
but did so. Those who slipped away and those
we said we’d miss, but didn’t really grieve.
Despite the ABAB scheme, the words carry enough weight to keep the reader’s attention. The lines vary, always of similar length but with enough commas and full stops thrown into the mixer that the poem does not read predictably.
Although there are some people who never recover emotionally from losing a family member or other loved one, it is generally accepted that, in most cases, especially regarding the death of colleagues or casual friends, we soon get over the shock. Davies takes it further though and challenges us:
We don’t admit it, even when it’s clear,
the way the least beloved human face
is more to us than those no longer here,
the ones we said no others could replace.
There is no argument from the poet’s corner as to whether this behaviour is insensitive or for the best, he just states the facts, even down to the grisly last line.
Other poems worth a read include ‘The Mountains’, ‘Piano Solo’ and ‘Sweet Peas’. Whether you like poetry which rhymes and is well-structured or poetry with a more subtle, contemporary taste, there’s a diamond to be found in this collection if you can get through all the packaging.