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Docklands: A Ghost Story

Damian Walford Davies
ISBN-13: 
9781781724934
Publication Date: 
Thursday, February 28, 2019
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‘When much new poetry looks no further than the poet’s navel, this kind of imaginative leap is a tonic.’ – The Telegraph
 

Victorian Cardiff –the world’s busiest port, booming on the back of the coal mined in the Welsh valleys – is vividly imagined through the eyes of the speaker of Damian Walford Davies’ new poetry collection, Docklands: A Ghost Story.

It is 1890, and three dark terraces down the docks are to be levelled to make way for a new square. The commission is given to the chief partner in a successful Cardiff architectural firm –a man supremely sure of himself. Yielding to docklands’ temptations, he becomes ever more estranged from a wife tormented by the death of their child. As the square rises from the ruins of the terraces, the louche architect encounters ‘the girl’.

Seen through the architect’s eyes, the well-to-do streets of an expanding Cardiff and the shady spaces of the docks become the stage for a haunting play of presences that threaten to unravel his uneasy bourgeois world. Among his designs – churches, neo-gothic villas and gargoyles – is a mermaid-figure fountain that becomes a totem of dark desire. The architect’s broken wife, Eleanor, is a central and unsettling presence. Among the architect’s acquaintances – conjured as characters in their own right – is the Irish cabbie, O’Driscoll, who regularly ferries him to dark assignations and who confirms rumours of a ghostly girl; the ‘ladybirds’ or street walkers with whom the architect consorts; and Cardiff’s trade magnates. Also making an appearance in the architect’s social circle are the Dahls –the parents of the famous Cardiff-born children’s author.

A disquieting fin-de-siècle ghost story in verse, Docklands explores grey worlds at the edges of the eye, conjuring late-Victorian Cardiff’s hustling, booming, sullied docks –and the horrors they conceal. A study of the violences perpetrated against wives and daughters, and of patterns of grief and longing, this disturbing sequence summons lost children and dark desires.

 

 

REVIEWS

Review by Dafydd Harvey, New Welsh Review

Friday, November 1, 2019

Damian Walford Davies’ poetry collection Docklands: A Ghost Story is the tale of an unnamed well-to-do architect working in a thriving Victorian Cardiff. Whislt balancing his marriage (reeling from the death of his new-born child) and his latest commission ‘to level’ the ‘ragtag terraces’ of Angeline, Louise and Adelaide, he begins to encounter the ghost of a girl.

There is no denying that Davies is an accomplished poet. The eight iambic unrhymed couplets which comprise all fifty poems maintain a tidy rhythm, throwing staccato gut-punches and boasting graceful melodies – ‘Where O’Driscoll’s pony / rests a ruined fetlock // on a back turned hoof, / I can see St Mary Street run plumb // until, a quarter mile away, / it curves to kiss itself.’ The vignette-per-page format mirrors the orated ghost story. Between pieces you imagine the torch laid down while giggles, gasps or artsy ‘mmm’s expire, until, once more, a mouth, a chin from the black of night is illuminated in orange and begins to deliver the next instalment.

[...]

...the static sketches of Cardiff are rich and, true to form, rigorously researched. Particularly poignant is ‘Commission’, the nature of the architect’s work providing further reason for guilt – ‘It was me // all over, but they put it out to tender / out of tact. My pitch ran: Raze // those breeding grounds of vice / and vermin, bring our children / back into the light!’ There is a profound sense of loss in these lines, made palpable by sweeping internal rhymes and frozen in the memorable final couplet - 'Angeline and Adelaide, held up only / by the rigging of the washing lines.’

Davies has a marked ability to crystallise trauma in a concise, impactful image. He does this wonderfully in my favourite poem from the collection, ‘Salvage’, the architect’s visceral account of his commission for a church in Abercarn (‘the godforsaken’), a monument for the ‘blistered spiritis’ following the 1878 colliery disaster: ‘I gave them such a pietà! - / the son’s dead heft // deposed along his mother’s / knees, the cross and ladder // in the background conjuring / a head frame and the winding gear.’

In conclusion, despite the failures of narrative, Davies deserves credit for his meticulous craftsmanship and there is a wealth of beauty and history in his work. In reading, I would advise to treat this strange collection slowly, a poem or two at a time.

This is an excerpt. Subscribe to the New Welsh Review to read the full review. 

Review by Jenny Hockey, WriteOutLoud

Monday, October 28, 2019

Damian Walford Davies has taught in the Department of English and Creative Writing at Cardiff University since 2013. He is now pro-vice chancellor for the university’s college of arts, humanities, and social sciences. Alongside his three poetry collections with Seren Books (Suit of Lights, 2009; Witch, 2012; and Judas, 2015), he publishes extensively on topics such as the relationship between maps and the imagination, and the work of poet RS.Thomas. 

At the end of Docklands he describes how he came to write its poems: “Docklands emerges from a long fascination with buildings, ground, maps and the dead”, it was “a way of helping me to understand and bed down in a new city”.  Personally I relish this small ‘explaining myself’ by the poet, especially after they have held me in thrall over 66 pages.

Docklands comprises 50 poems of eight couplets apiece. It offers a ghost story told by a Cardiff architect who is imagined living and working in the city in the early 1890s. The architect secured a commission:

 

     … to level Angeline,

     Louisa, Adelaide - ragtag terraces

 

     of lean, abutting lives

     from Wharf Street to the dun canal -

 

     and raise a perfect square with limes

     and fountains playing. It was me

 

     all over …

 

Undertaking this work he begins to sight the ghost of a girl murdered in one of the houses he has watched reduced to “red rubble”, “…The dustcloud/took all day to clear; its tang - /now sweet, now acrid –”.  In his private life, he estranges himself from his wife, she grieving after a stillbirth. Instead he seeks the women selling sex “in shabby rooms in Stuart Street”, who’ll “tackle anything” for oranges.

A collection that tells a single, coherent story is unusual. Yet poetry is well suited to this task, particularly in the case of a ghost story. A form of writing that releases its meaning only slowly and requires careful focus is a wonderful medium for creating suspense, gradually building character and atmosphere, poem by poem. What a thriller or ghost story requires of us is the recognition of allusions and clues, the exploration of possible interpretations; in other words the practices of an appreciative reader of poetry.  

These points also apply to ghost stories told through film and Docklands similarly uses the filmic technique of close-ups to reveal more and more of the architect and his wife’s characters — his ruthless arrogance, her terrible despair.  Event after terrible event is brought to life through telling details. When an apprentice is wallpapering one of the architect’s new properties he not only remarks that a girl was murdered “by ’ere” but conveys its grisliness, saying he hopes “tha’ fucker Foley” “took ’is time to croak”. Meanwhile the architect notes:

 

     … He’d missed

 

     a bubble.  I fought an urge

     to prick it with my pen.

 

When the architect witnesses a death (there are many) while drinking oolong on a café terrace  (“… I saw the infant boy/cracked sideways by the flouncing mare”), the café owner is depicted:

 

     arching over with the sugar tongs - so close

 

     I read the bonewhite buttons

     on his waistcoat: Cardin, France.”

 

When his grieving wife is hanging out scarlet ribbons laden with lard for the birds, he describes the ribbons “ranged/like gashes on her wrists”.

Such is the suspense built up here that I would do the collection a disservice if I revealed its dénouement. Certainly the architect and his wife undergo profound personal transitions, offering a nuanced sense of their characters and circumstances.  But maybe I wanted a slightly darker ending - I have already ordered Damian Walford Davies’ earlier collection, Witch. For all that, though, I relished the complexity of these poems’ language and their references.  Sometimes their syntax skillfully takes you to the brink of incomprehension -   then catches you up on a line or stanza break to lead you more deeply into a world that is remote, yet here made satisfyingly plausible and intriguing.

Review by Chris Andrews, Buzz Magazine

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Never have I read such eloquent descriptions of Cardiff’s streets as I did in Docklands: A Ghost Story. For example, I’ve walked Womanby Street hundreds of times, but I have never noticed the “gartered ladybirds” described here. And therein lies the beauty of this book. Initially conceived as an exercise in getting to know his new surroundings upon moving to the city from Aberystwyth, Damian Walford Davies’s intriguing examination of those worlds “at the edges of the eye” is set in Victorian Cardiff and told entirely in verse. While this may not be to everybody’s reading taste, it offers a well-researched insight into our city’s past, as well as a thoroughly engaging tale of abuse, and grief that will send a shiver down your spine.

Review by Anna Lewis, Wales Arts Review

Thursday, April 25, 2019

In Docklands: A Ghost Story, Damian Walford Davies follows up his two previous collections from Seren – Witch and Judas – with another book-length narrative in verse, this time a ghost story flitting between the luxury and poverty of Victorian Cardiff. Witch, set in the seventeenth century, imagined a Suffolk village torn apart by the hysteria of witch trials; Judas let the Biblical traitor adrift among the squaddies and barflies of present-day Jerusalem, an outcast twice-lost.  Docklands appears based upon similarly painstaking research, although the story is fiction.  Its protagonist is a prominent but unnamed architect, commissioned to design an elegant square on a patch of dockland slums.  In an effort to distance himself from his wife, who is gripped by grief following the death of their infant child, the architect consoles himself in the seedy pleasures of the docks, until he notices a girl appear:

 

through the whiskey’s umber,
fractured by the lead-glass

tumbler’s cuts: ten, or younger…

(‘Solus’)

Grey, bruised, and silent at first, the girl becomes an obsession, drawing ever-nearer to the architect as she follows him through the streets.

As with Witch and Judas, there is a supernatural or spiritual element to the story, but this otherworldly intrusion is not quite as convincing as the material detail of time and place.  Walford Davies pins open the precarious world of the docks, where the architect wanders the terraces he must demolish and encounters a world scarcely firmer than the sea it abuts:

 

… crazy

Angeline and Adelaide, held up only
by the rigging of the washing lines.

 

(‘Commission’)

 

Conversation is interrupted by ‘the sounding of a two-tone channel buoy’ (‘Recipe’); after the demolition of the slum terraces, the reader’s eyes almost feel the irritation of the resulting dustcloud:

 

… its tang –

now sweet, now acrid –
conjured last night’s staged

saltpetre smoke that veiled
the cheap illusionist’s hey prestos

(‘Wives’)

 

The poems, each of which consists of eight couplets, all follow a similar quick, staccato rhythm, hanging on careful rungs of rhyme and half-rhyme. Walford Davies has a sharp turn of phrase, paring each observation down to its essence, an almost surgical technique which gives the poetry both its precision and also its slight callousness of tone. Scenes of horror and hope are described in equally clipped fashion, from the amputation of a leg in a dockside pub:

 

… From nowhere,

someone set to work:
knifestrokes, sawstrokes, reef knot

to the artery…

(‘Saw’)

 

to a moment of reconciliation between the architect and his wife:

 

… As if along
a corridor of long-barred doors,

she tacked towards me,
the lamp behind her

moving in and out of curt
eclipse.

(‘Cross-section’)

 

The book is a monologue in the architect’s voice, which is one reason for the unwavering tone and pace. The rigid structure of the poems is another. The narrator remains a man of confidence and certainty: even as he accepts the presence of the ghost, he never loses control of the pattern of his speech or thought.

The twenty-first century reader might infer a psychological aspect to the haunting: having something to do with the loss of the architect’s own child, and with his resentment of his wife’s grief. Perhaps he has transferred to the girl the compassion he is unable to grant his wife, or himself. To the architect, however, the ghost is real: he asks around to discover her identity, that of a child murdered a few years before. But despite this stimulation of his sympathy, and despite the movement towards reconciliation between husband and wife somehow engendered by the ghost girl, there is not truly a sense in the poems that the architect has changed the way he sees or understands the world. We witness a change in his actions towards the end of the book – he buys a gift for his wife, and replaces the bawdy mermaid which first topped the fountain in his square with a monument to the murdered girl – but little shift in his voice or his composure.  This is still a man who knows exactly what to do.

Docklands is, then, a buttoned-up kind of ghost story. However, even if the protagonist’s perspective remains constant, the impact of the book lies in its ability to affect the reader’s view. One of the most vivid images is a scene on St Mary’s Street which holds no particular dramatic function but is perfect in its crystallisation of a moment:

 

… Woken by the sun,

O’Driscoll shifted in his oilskin
at the cab-stand; his bowler

held the morning’s downpour
in its rim.  I rapped the pane;

he raised his face; the bright ring
sluiced off in a flashing plait.

(‘Figure’)

 

Cardiff today is filled with images of its history, on the walls of every pub and café, but descriptions such as these bring the past to life in a way which photographs fail to do.  In these poems we taste, smell and hear the city, and we see the shadows behind the grandiose civic architecture of the British Empire. In the tiny details of smoke on a conjurer’s stage, or rainwater falling from a hat, we are immersed in moments quickly forgotten by those who experienced them, but which cumulatively make up the substance of their lives. Docklands is a meticulous study of place, time and atmosphere, which opens the reader’s eyes to a city behind the city, and to lives behind our own.

Review by Tristram Fane Saunders, The Telegraph

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Poetry Book of the Month: Docklands: A Ghost Story

When’s the last time you read a new book of poems set in fin de siècle Wales? Never, I’ll bet. Seren, the inventive press that recently gave us a biography-in-sonnets of Kierkegaard, now offers this tale of genteel horror, haunted by the not unwelcome ghost of MR James.

We’re in Cardiff, 1890. A cynical, self-satisfied architect lands “the docklands brief: to level Angeline,/ Louisa, Adelaide – ragtag terraces// of lean, abutting lives”, and build a new town square. But one spirit won’t be levelled; a dead girl from the slums inveigles her way into his unhappy home.

When much new poetry looks no further than the poet’s navel, this kind of imaginative leap is a tonic. It’s familiarly eerie ground for Davies, a Cardiff University don whose previous collections gave voice to Judas and witchfinders.

The plot (if that’s not too strong a word for this captivating bundle of spectral vignettes and wry half-anecdotes) unfolds through short lyrics. Its pleasures are quiet ones.

Each poem is in irregular, iambic two-line stanzas – unrhyming couples, just like the unfaithful architect and his wife, whose names we never learn.

We see a world of “camber” and “quoins” through his learned eyes, though with some ironic distance. She’s in mourning after a miscarriage. The home he designed has become a tomb, its ornate details suffocating and absurd:

"She meets me// on the landing, still in black –/ gaunt hand resting on the newel post’s// carved artichoke […] I loathe her pallor,// hate the acrid odour/ when I douse the lamp.”

As in many Victorian ghost stories, the supernatural is a cipher for something sadder and closer to home. It is a house soured by loss; slowly, the ghost’s arrival makes it less nightmarish, filling the void left by the child they wanted. Things improve, a little. Lives are rebuilt and remembered. I liked it very much.

 

Read the full article on telegraph.co.uk

 

 

 

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