Is it prior to, following or perhaps during, the synchronized tossing of a frisbee in a field or the ‘parties from here to China’, when we have no choice but to pause and think spiritually for a moment? In The Claims Office, the first collection from Welsh youngster Dai George, a bunch of religious poems start off, chronologically fitting, with ‘Distraction During Evensong’, inspired by the Book of Matthew, and that moment in a chapel, possibly a chapel we have visited a hundred times, during a lull in the choir, when we consider things in a different, fresh way; an epiphany, religiously or personally. Or possibly the distraction is a welcomed cure for tediousness.
Resuming voice, the choir whined beyond the lectern,
wishful voices winding through the air
like the first snore of a bedmate, a misunderstanding.
But by the second religious poem, the explicatory Lord is dead. Or is it just His explication which is dead? For in the next sentence He reappears as ‘happy God dabbing his hooves/voluntarily in our pastures’. (It is possible that God in this case represents a human, as the h in ‘his’ is in lower case, but more likely this is simply a break in tradition.) And in the next sentence He is a ‘coexistant moon’, a paganish suggestion which implies that God is different for everyone, which rules out a declaration of Christian faith. And in the third religious poem, George uses seven stanzas to echo the seven days of Creation (resting was as vital to the Creation process as it is to the narrator of this stylishly rhyming poem).
‘New Translation’ also rhymes, and the rhyming is subtle and cool, and at its skilful best:
Thanks to the hacks who still insist
on fixing the smallest glitch in Luke,
the Lord’s Prayer can be gamely glossed
at the tenth line. No more is sin a lake
we’re led to like bullocks on market-day
but rather rum misadventure
No longer does sin mean death, thus being an excuse to sin again (it would not be a surprise if George’s definition of the word rum is the less known and obsolete definition, meaning odd or peculiar, but as both images fit nicely the reader will have to make up his own mind; elsewhere in The Claims Office you will find dated English sitting comfortably with newfangled English). God pops up again in the titular poem, albeit still in an irreligious form. Modern churches might declare themselves non-religious, but God being described as ‘a steel mould into which we pour/molten yearnings’ is unlikely to make the slogan on a church website. Yet, given the fact this transformation of a God from an invisible spirit into something solid and undeniably real, and mightier still than us, not many Christians could sum up their faith any better.
If we sometimes have to think spiritually for a moment, that is quite a moment. Religious poems made up of non-religion is an enigma the reader can wrestle with himself, and there are more poems in which this puzzler crops up.
Aside from these poems, The Claims Office is thematically discordant. This common problem will catch out most poets as inexperienced as George at putting collections together, a skill in itself, but this collection is saved by the consistent good standard of individual poems. It would be naive to say that this is the principal element of poetry’s criterion, but George’s poems go from being a good standard to high standard more often than is common, and this is where rereading is spawned.
‘Oran-Bati’, a contribution to a crypto-zoology project, will bring back the sense of rum misadventure, and ‘The George’, a contribution to a surname project, will doubtless have you thinking about your own family tree (if the absurd number of television programmes relating to this subject have not already doused the passionate flames everyone must, at some point, burn with for this once-fascinating pastime). In ‘Narwhal’, we’re treated to stunning description:
a farce: hoar flukes blotched like moss,
camouflage for her liquid copse where sighting
means predation. She breached, as though kiting
with a sack of spuds; gulped, then a fey flop,
oxygenated, back into the deep.
alongside conversation humour which, unless you are of the type being described, will lighten the mood in time for a potentially overdramatic flourish:
Never trust someone who claims to prefer
animals to humans. You know the type,
some frazzled, cat-kissing petitioner,
whose beaten dogs, like readers’ wives,
pout above her stall.
The final poem takes place in a plane. The narrator is travelling home after a long, long time away. The book, like the impressively mature Dai George’s mind, travels long distances. Here we are reminded of the slow whitening of the narwhal’s ocean and, no doubt, the heat which has made our yearnings molten; though this heat comes in a slightly different shape for each one of us. And then this:
Life-size homes and lakes appear
and with them, ever larger, our paradigm
for future years: a white morning; a terminal
steadying into work, where soon we’ll kiss,
as the ground hunches its back to meet us.
It doesn’t matter whether this is a first collection or not. Many poets will struggle to produce work as exciting as this, no matter what number collection they are on. But the fact that there is certainly more to come from this highly talented poet is the most exciting thing of all. Dai George has got a big part to play in the future of poetry, and well beyond Wales. The Claims Office is where this all starts.