Gary Raymond reviews Poets’ Graves/Beddau’r Beirdd, a book which combines the photography of Paul White and words of Damian Walford Davies to remember 70 of Wales’ greatest poets.
‘When you’re dead, they really fix you up.’ So said Holden Caulfield in Salinger’s epochal novel. Poets’ Graves, the second in a series of themed collaborations by the authors, is part morbid fascination with the dead, part celebration of legacy, but it is, ultimately, a meagre sum of the parts of its promise, despite the best efforts of a ‘fix up’. This, Gomer’s latest bilingual pictorial salute to decaying marks on Wales’ landscape, proves a peculiarly static coffee table book, (all-too sombre, I suspect, for most coffee tables). And a little weightless, too; it never gets the hairs on the back of the neck upright, despite numerous almost melodramatic efforts to do just that. But Poets’ Graves does manage to make a statement, even if it is not the one you suspect it intended to make at the outset. It is book of two components – images and text – and has an imbalance therein that eventually proves to be the publication’s true, if ephemeral, worth.
Paul White’s photography and Damian Walford Davies’ words (Mererid Hopwood provides the Cymraeg) give an epitaph to seventy one of Wales’ passed bards, from Taleisin’s ancient tump, to T. Llew Jones’ glistening marble headstone put in place just five years ago. The book is well put together. Gomer are very good at this – books where you can see where the money has been spent. But it is not long before an inescapable realisation whiffs up from the pages – for all of its initial sheen and carefully crafted typesetting, it is lugubriously dull to look at, a draw back for certain for a book that is predominantly made up of images.
The landscape is on the whole rendered fittingly, but not thrillingly, lifeless. There are moments when Paul White’s eye catches a glimpse of the grim allure of tombstones: that of T.H. Parry-Williams imposes on White’s lens like Kubrick’s monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey; the patch that holds the bones of Howell Elfet Lewis is caught on an eerily sombre misty morning; and Lynette Roberts is made to look particularly lonely in her eternal resting spot. But these are infrequent. Mostly you get what you’d expect: pictures of graves.
There is an incarcerating monotony to the procession of gravestones; it is like a menu for the Addams Family’s favourite fast food restaurant. The photographs are rarely remarkable, not veering at all from an emotionless black and white. There are moments when some scenes appear suspiciously staged – the upturned wheelbarrow, a toppled urn – but who can really blame White for striving to make the images more interesting than they are. Sometimes they lurch for dimension, for depth, for character, but there is little to find in the lurching, unfortunately. And there are times when they don’t even lurch.
But – and it’s a big but, and one that may not appeal to everyone – it is within this lack of imagistic depth where the most interesting thing happens: it becomes a metaphorical testament to the very lack of sentient life after death. Let us ignore for a moment that particle physics has all but proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is no existence for the human mind (or soul, if you prefer) beyond death, that we are indeed stardust, and we dissipate back into the elemental fabric of the universe when we rot – forget about that evidenced fact. Think about how we can actually live on: in the memories of those attached to the things we do when alive, rather than the fearful superstitions of those we leave behind. The life is in the words, these images say. Remember the poets for their work, they say, because there is nothing here in these churchyards and hillsides. The book is a powerful, lingering argument for the shunning of such superstition.
In the previous collaboration between Paul White and Damian Walford Davies, Ancestral Houses: The Lost Mansions of Wales (with Sian Melangell-Dafydd providing the Welsh text for that one), White’s photography suggests the lives that had moved through the ruins before they were ruins. The words and images meld to create the spectral vapour of life. Here they have the opposite effect. Walford Davies’ airy prose – poetic, esoteric, personal yet generous – suggests the Glorious afterlife of literature. The tiny prose poems – around a hundred words or so per poet – is at times quite wonderful, a clicking of the iris in and of themselves. They work as a kind of smart postscript monologue to the King’s words in Richard II:
Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let’s choose executors and talk of wills.
But, alas, there is ultimately something missing in Poets’ Graves. It is unlikely this book will inspire literature students to spend a summer in a camper van going around Wales ticking off the pages as they pilgrimage through the resting places of ten Williams’, seven Thomas’, six Jones’ and a litany of others: the book is simply not attractive enough to inspire that kind of romanticism. It sits in your lap as lifeless as the subject. What it does do is bring thoughts back to the young Holden Caulfield, exactly the sort of character you’d expect to be drawn to this book, and then to huff, sneer and chuck it in his sock drawer – but I’m now of the same mind: ‘I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery.’
Images: Paul White
English Text: Damian Walford Davies
Welsh Text: Mererid Hopwood
Gomer Press, 167pp, £19.99
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