THE PRESENCE OF THE ENGLISH TRADITION
Presence by Dinah Livingstone. Katabasis, 1 0 St. Martin's Close, London, NWI OHR. 85pp.; £7.95.
"Refugees you are welcome. I hope you will /feel at home here" is a statement likely, in this era of officially sponsored xenophobia, to shock. Its directness, courage and, above all, generosity are characteristic of Dinah Livingstone's new collection.
Presence is the poet's sixth book (she has also published several pamphlets, prose works and numerous translations) and represents both a continuation of earlier preoccupations and a move -- in terms of form -- into slightly different territory. Livingstone's method has always been rooted in observation; principally of the outside world, but also of her own emotions. 'London and Country', the first section of the book, and 'Mexico', the second, both present us with vivid recreations of place; the pink rocks and dark river of a Mexican cave; the repeated greys (willow, sky, pigeon) of an English orchard. Trained by a country childhood and her farming father, she notices, even in the city, the "first green hairs" of turf and the tiny flower of nightshade. Her London -- and this provides a further shock for the fellow Londoner -- is not a city of concrete, cars and mobile phone masts (almost entirely absent from her poems) but one made up of green squares and gardens, home to a hundred and ten named species of bird ('Birdman' and to plane-tree, ash, horse-chestnut, oak, sycamore, Michaelmas daisy, buddleia. This focus on the green within the man-made is, however, no sidestepping of reality in favour of the picturesque. On the contrary, the London she describes is also peopled and specifically by those whom, like the tiny shoots of grass, are most generally overlooked or undervalued; anonymous workers, asylum seekers, the jobless, the homeless. Observation, the "work of seeing"' (in a phrase she borrows from Rilke), is the prelude to engagement. In these poems both natural and human worlds are pulled into dialogue around the enduring existential questions; in our isolation and impotence, after the death of God and the apparent failure of revolutions, where can we look for meaning? How do we deal with the 'other' (in the form of the stranger, the step-mother, the suppressed aspects of ourselves)? Where can we find hope?
In two formal sequences of poems, which mark something of a new departure in her writing, we can see Livingstone working towards some kind of answer. Presence consists of fourteen sonnets with a single sonnet prologue, the elements of this 'crown' being structured thematically rather than by some device of versification. The prologue is dedicated to a teacher who "taught us to think about presence", while itself describing the various ways in which we are constantly distracted by everyday life. We are led into the sonnet sequence by the suggestion that the act of writing, of finding "word to follow word", may be a means of regaining this lost state. The poems which follow take us through the course of a notional day, from waking just before dawn to falling asleep at night, and on a circuit from the poet's room, out into Camden, St Pancras, Bunbill Fields, Highgate, the Barbican, Clerkenwell and back to her house. In these historically significant locations we encounter both the present-day London with its heterogeneous population and Blakc's envisioned "fruitful city which has room / for all kinds of folk"; the visionary is constantly glimpsed through the seen, constantly thrown into question again. We experience, by turns, pleasure, doubt, fatigue, loneliness, despondency, final gratitude for the blessings of shelter and food. The sequence finishes as does the waking day, with the 'O' shape on an ornamental peacock feather (appropriately, the sign of infinity, of return and repetition).
If 'Presence' suggests the necessity of really being in the world in the moment, the other long sequence, 'Heartwork', takes us a stage further, philosophically as well as in technique. Livingstone here has devised a structure suggested by the clenching and unclenching movement of the heart (systole and diastole). These are represented by the interleaving of short tight poems (sixteen rhymed lines), in content abstract and speculative, with longer passages of free verse based on personal memory, her relationship with her father, mother, step-mother and her younger self. The short poems act as a questioning commentary on the experiences in the longer ones, asserting the necessity and the difficulty of remaining open-hearted, in an existence inevitably marked by disappointment, loss. or deprivation of love. Not surprisingly the longer poems with their portraits of, for instance, the emotionally reticent father who, having himself been terrified in the Navy, terrified his children on the basis that "you would / get used to it if you were yelled at very young / and grow up not to mind" ('Rhythm Father') or of the abusive step-mother who used to tell the poet "you're bad 1 as your mother was, who bled to death" ('Heaven and Hell'), are among the most accessible and moving of the whole collection.
Occasionally in these two ambitious sequences, the everyday slips into the prosaic, an abstract speculation verges on cliche. In the sonnets there is sometimes a glitch in the metre, or an awkward line break, "as through the chink a cloud-puffy kind / of sunrise peeps with morning's hopeful ache" ('Geranium'); elsewhere, a long sentence congested with very short phrases which block immediate comprehension (Tota Simul). But these burrs and rough edges give the poems an energy and immediacy that might he missing in a smoother management of the verse.
The feeling of immediacy, even urgency, and Livingstone's trust in the vernacular, link her with a particular strand of English writing, a tradition apparent in the names invoked or recollected in poem after poem; Tyndale, Bunyan, Milton, Blake, Mary Wollstonecroft, Coleridge, Keats, William Morris, the 'hedge-priest' John Ball, the Marxist literary critic Raymond Williams. This is a roll-call of English dissent; preachers, poets, prisoners (even martyrs) for their convictions and many of them, not insignificantly, self-publishers (Livingstone's book appears under her own imprint, Katabasis). As well as the belief in 'common specech' they share a vision of the possibility of a better existence, not in an afterworld, but here on earth; a transformation of the conditions of life. If, as she says in 'For Arnold', this vision has been swamped, century after century; "defeat follows defeat and the ever / more arrogant Ideology / claims it is unassailable", so century after century it has re-emerged, like Bunyan's character Mr.Great-Heart who travelled the Valley of the Shadow of Death, not once but many times, and came through alive ('Pilgrim').
A potential source of hope and renewal, for those who, like the poet, must travel without Bunyan's religious certainties, is indicated in her celebration of the living and growing being -- whether it he plant, animal or child. But 'Heartwork' reminds us that observation and appreciation are not in themselves enough; the human heart needs to be actively engaged, actively reaching out towards others, "Love opens out, exposed, may suffer / agonies of blight and loss / yet risking it is still less bitter" ('Heartsease').
A collection which takes on the challenge of existence in this way cannot fail to earn respect. There are also, however, many incidental pleasures to be found in these poems, from the sly humour of 'Faithless' to the breathtaking virtuosity of 'Birdman'; too many to do justice to in a short review. Livingstone has been writing thoughtful and distinctive poetry for a number of years. This book should delight her existing readers and be a revelation to new ones.