Poems of Rowan Williams, Rowan Williams, Carcanet, 2014, 96pp, £9.95 (paperback)
Rowan Williams says: ‘I dislike the idea of being a religious poet. I would prefer to be a poet for whom religious things mattered intensely.’ Even when inspired by a religious story, the poems in this collection are more concerned with the inner thoughts of the poet than with the events of the sacred narra- tive. There are things, the poems tell us, that are hidden from our everyday perception and which we can approach only in a special frame of mind. Some of these things are sacred, and therefore the concern of religion. Others are simply there, like doorways in the long sad alleyway of life: if a light shines we can see them, and we can open them if we have a key. Poetry provides that light, and the key of contrition usually unlocks the doors that absolve us.
Such is the impression I get from these absorbing, personal and often dif- ficult poems. God is present, but seldom mentioned, in Williams’s verse: all is imagery, conjured in argumentative verse that rarely comes to a clean conclusion. Here is a short poem in which God does get a mention, entitled ‘Bach for the Cello’:
By mathematics we shall come to heaven.
This page the door of God’s academy
for the geometer,
Where the pale lines involve a continent,
transcribe the countryside of formal light,
kindle with friction.
Passion will scorch deep in these sharp canals:
under the level moon, desire runs fast,
the flesh aches on its string,
I puzzled over this poem for some time: the images are somehow discon- nected, and the punctuation seems to force them further apart. How, for example, am I to read the colon after ‘canals’? The canals, I take it, are the staves on music paper, and the ‘countryside of formal light’ that they tran- scribe are the notes of a cello suite, kindled into sound by the friction of a bow. But why ‘without consummation, without loss’? In the end, I gave up, thinking that the fault is probably mine.
The book opens with a beautiful sequence inspired by the painter Gwen John’s residence in Paris. One poem evokes St Thérèse de Lisieux through the photographs that John used as raw material for her posthumous portrait of the saint. Williams imagines these photographs being taken by Thérèse’s father, his head under the camera’s cloth. The saint sees her father, disappearing from sight in order to see her.
She says, Can you see me
Not seeing you? That’s when
You see me.
That struck me as a most poignant way of summarising that deeply suffer- ing woman and all that she has meant to her devotees.
Three other poems concern people imbued with holiness – one is about the Augustine of The Confessions, one about Thomas Merton at the time of his unconsummated love for the nurse who looked after him, and one about Simone Weil, dying in the sanatorium at Ashford. The first stanza of ‘Simone Weil at Ashford’ describes a young god ascending into the air, ac- companying his upwards steps on a little flute that he breaks and discards at each pause on the stairway. This Orpheus-Christ, prepared as a sacrificial offering, is the god whose death renews the world. But we, Weil understands, don’t walk like him. ‘We stagger up/ the steps in padded jackets, moonboots,/ crash-helmets, filters and shades…’ And Williams gives these words to her:
At least I can be light and hungry, hollowing my guts
Till I’m a bone the sentenced god can whistle through.
That too is a poignant summary of a woman who was transfigured by suffering, and who knew that the sacred and the sacrificial are each incomplete without the other.
In ‘Crossings’ the poet addresses someone urgently in the second person:
While I sit mute, suspicious of my choice
(Reserve or fluency), how do I reach
You, then, across the acres of the room?
But whether this ‘you’ is human or divine I could not tell. Even with God Williams stands at one remove, observing, acted upon, but somehow soli- tary, drifting past on unceasing pilgrimage, his burden of guilt not discard- ed, and never sure of the journey’s end.
Incidentally, the enjambment of ‘reach you’, reminiscent of a famous in- stance in Keats’s ode ‘To Autumn’, is just one illustration of the attention to detail in Williams’s versification. He is not a scholarly poet, exactly, and the enormous influence on him of Rilke removes him from the canon of Eng. Lit. as a Leavisite would describe it. But these poems are in no way the work of an amateur, who takes days off from the exacting task of governing the world-wide Anglican communion in order to try his hand at verse. They are a real contribution to the literature of our times, and an invitation to join in one man’s highly personal search for meaning in a mutilated world. I imagine they are the surviving remnants of many rejected attempts, the outcome of continuous trial, and of many a long tense wait for inspiration.
At several places Williams’s love of the countryside, and of his own Welsh roots, shows through. There are some strong and moving translations from the Welsh poets Ann Griffiths and Waldo Williams, whose candid expressions of religious faith contrasts interestingly with Williams’s reticence. And some of the most memorable of the poems offer glimpses of nature and the work of husbandry. There is a beautiful invocation of late afternoon sunlight, and another of dry-stone walling, ‘one sentence scrawled across the sheet’. Williams’s poem leaves out nothing of the human meaning of these frontiers across our hillsides, except perhaps the thrill of jumping them on horseback.
Although Williams is never tempted forth from his solitude for long, at their best these poems are imbued with an undemanding kindness, and the atmosphere throughout is pastoral, in both senses of the word. They tell us that we don’t enter the Kingdom of Heaven easily, and that we cannot cause the door to open merely by blowing the trumpets of the ‘Church Militant here on earth’. It is by penitence and humility that we release the lock, and an Archbishop must look for these gifts of Grace in just the places where others find them – in the traces inscribed on the face of our world.