Poetry Pamphlet Reviews & Features

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The prospect of death

This is a pamphlet that hits hard with its uncompromising title and gloomy cover image of an ancient church among headstones. The poems within deal frankly but wittily with a cancer diagnosis and its consequences, as the author comes to terms with the prospect of death, step by step.

Writer-Davies writes with a dark irony from the start, pleading with a God he doesn’t really believe in to spare him. At Christmas time he imagines death, not as the Grim Reaper but as a horror Santa Claus (‘Christmas Lights’):

I will try to be good

please don’t send death
in his fat red suit

Pleading and denial seem to be the main modes of coping early on, as in the poem ‘Diagnosis’ (‘what I want to hear / is / I’m sorry, there’s been a mistake’) but as time passes, the poet confesses the fears that prey on him. Images of bones and screaming owls appear. Stripped of the logic of normal life, ‘Thought Alone Can Make Monsters’, as one poem title puts it. This title, and maybe the imagery in ‘Once More Owls’, seem to allude to Goya’s etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, one example of the many cultural allusions worked into these poems.

Later, the poet looks on his fate with a humorous detachment, though it is grim. He presents himself as ‘The Anatomical Man’, dissected with all the inner workings on display:

upon the sloppy viscera
I look down

as to what is to come

It is only towards the very end of the volume that a ray of hope appears. In ‘That Summer’, Writer-Davies is able to look back at the worst period of his illness as something overcome: ‘& having expected to be dead / I poured a large one instead’.

Having taken the reader through a series of painful experiences and emotions, Writer-Davies concludes with an unexpected celebration of life. Death is inevitable in the end but fatalism is not the answer.

Dennis Tomlinson