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This review is taken from PN Review 197, Volume 37 Number 3, January - February 2011.


What has Anglicanism ever done for us?

Simple answer: poetry. Perhaps Anglicanism is its poetry. Think Donne, Herbert and R.S. Thomas for starters. Then add Rowan Williams, current Archbishop of Canterbury, in whom the Anglican poet/priest trope is continued with finesse.

In Williams’ third collection of poetry we find the scholar-priest on familiar territory: nature, especially Welsh nature,infused with transcendent potency; the problem and potential of human power; and an almost forensic searching for sense. Reflecting on a visit to death row in an African jail, he asks, ‘What do they spell, the fairy lights/draping the yard outside the cells?’ His answers, initially, lie only in questions – ‘A daily Christmas? Unwrapping the surprises/before dawn?’ At another level in the resignation of the condemned man – ‘You needn’t tell us/anything but what we know, what the lights spell:/a guest as always, as already, here/as the damp ammoniac floor’. Perhaps it is the poet’s vocation to attempt to render the world into ‘word sense’; Williams’ efforts are both interrogative and deeply concrete. Here the theologian/poet confronts the brutal, dumb world.

However, it is Williams’ lyric passion and simplicity which impresses. Consider his re-presentation of a famous Biblical epiphany, Emmaus: profound encounter happens as ‘a solid thumb and finger tear the thunderous/grey bread’ leaving beautiful, if ambiguous comfort – ‘Now it is cold, even indoors/and the light falls sharply on our bones/the rain breathes out hard, dust blackens/and out released voices shine with water.’

Perhaps his shimmering, technically adroit voice is most sustained in the ten sonnets ‘Shakespeare in Love’. I was delighted by Williams’ capacity for witty snappy lines. Thus, ‘Home from the front in time for cocktails’ from Much Ado about Nothing. One can almost hear Benedict mouthing it. The tasty moments in this series are almost too frequent to mention. Consider the potent wit in Twelfth Night:

Such a long journey. Will all the shipwrecks
and the stealthy night-time break-ins, the false beards
borrowed tights, songs with the words you can’t
money for toys, dropped rings, corsets and swords
pay for the one epiphany?

His comment on Measure for Measure, that most political play, might be a comment on politics itself: ‘…joyfully the friars and whores pile trick on trick/because this is a game where you must break/the rules to win’. Twelfth Night takes us back to familiar ground – ‘I need to tell you, all you need to know is that/I never found the words’. Even if Williams sometimes is a little conservative, do not imagine this to be ‘stuffed shirt’ poetry. The ironic ‘Alone at Last’ in which he imagines a cornucopia of interlocutors – ‘my mother/my last four girlfriends/me at eighteen months/my anima/you when I met you, myself/at sticky sixteen’ – is joyous and hints at a character one often wishes he showed a little more in his sometimes angst-ridden public life.


This review is taken from PN Review 197, Volume 37 Number 3, January - February 2011.

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