Thomas Ovans browses a handsome poetic and photographic collaboration by William Oxley and Barry Davidson
It is not often that a poetry reviewer is presented with something which might be called a ‘coffee table book’. But ISCA – Exeter Moments deserves that label. It is a handsomely produced volume setting William Oxley’s poems alongside Barry Davidson’s colour photos of the city of Exeter and its surroundings.
Between them, the pictures and words do fair justice to Exeter’s fine architecture and long history. But while Davidson’s images chiefly feature buildings, landscape and the occasional pub sign, the poems seem more concerned with the people who have lived in, on or beneath them. The poem ‘The Well House’ seems almost like a manifesto
A few yards from here Exeter’s cathedral green
A few yards from here the Roman garrison’s baths
A few yards from here the first ever English hotel
A few yards from here Drake’s local pub
A few yards from here so much history
But fewer yards still the whole human mystery
Clearly Oxley likes to keep people in the foreground of his poetry – sometimes by name but sometimes giving people dignity in anonymity, as in his sonnet about past congregations at George’s Meeting House:
I can see them all now, they who
knew they were close to God –
or believed so. Lives of hardship and plod
through long pastures of pain….
Those who are mentioned by name include historical figures such as Bishop Richard Hooker and Francis Drake and contemporary ones like the late and much-missed poet Ken Smith and certain of Oxley’s friends defined only by their first names (and whose full identities some readers may be able to guess).
Sometimes characters from past and present appear alongside one another. In ‘Rougemont Dream’ the winos cuddle bottles next to the mound, walls and dead wells where once there were Lords and Ladies in procession. Oxley is realist enough to note that these brilliant figures from the castle’s past would stink as much / as any following rabble.
The cathedral and the city’s ecclesiastical history loom quite large in both pictures and words. Davidson gives us fine images of embroidered rondels and of stonework and stained glass. The sometimes irreverent relationship between the English and their Established Church peeps through the remark that Hooker justified the ways of Anglicanism/ to God. But elsewhere something more profound is acknowledged: in St Stephen’s church voices …echo / unwind as slow/ as petals of faith/ falling to dry silence; while in the grubby silence/ of St Olav’s church … wrong and right/ have masqueraded in hope of finding that white/ tremendous gleam.
Poems and images do also escape outdoors to the city’s gardens and playing fields and beyond to the River Exe and its flood plain (where a train running on Brunel’s railway to the south-west slithers like a serpent). We get a chance to drink at a canal-side pub and share a breakfast overlooking Exeter Quay. We also encounter the concrete stilts (so different from mediaeval stone) on which the motorway now strides across what were once peaceful water meadows. Sadly, however, the photograph does not show us the two young women – models for ‘Vogue’ who appear in the accompanying poem. This is one of the book’s small and rare disappointments!
In one of the poems, Oxley observes that A poem has to make facts blossom: / like the fish and chip shop that serves Mars bars in batter. Which is quite a good description of what ISCA sets out to do and what it pretty well achieves. Oxley and Davidson have absorbed certain facts of history and geography through years of comfortable and casual acquaintance with the city of Exeter; and this book is the flowering that has followed a careful nurturing of these facts (and no doubt a certain amount of weeding). While ISCA is obviously somewhat less than a complete guide to Exeter it is, in so many important ways, something very much more.