Docklands: A Ghost Story

Damian Walford Davies
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.




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.


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