Thomas Ovans is impressed by the clear and positive messages expressed in Dinah Livingstone‘s latest collection
There is a strong strand of cautious but persistent optimism running through Dinah Livingstone’s latest collection The Vision Splendid . The opening poem offers a perceptive and appealing image of the progress of post-operative recovery:
Healing happens like spring,
creeps up, hesitates,
steals another march, leaps,
settles in her lap
That word-play on ‘march’ is also characteristic: Livingstone is fond of exploiting associations and double-meanings. She also has a keen ear for what people say – and for what they might really mean. ‘Fallow’ is based on an overheard comment
‘Weed is a rude word,’
said the brickie mending my wall;
‘it’s plant racism’
Livingstone generates a charming little poem from this and from her own reaction Perhaps he was right. (‘Fallow’ is also a poem which mentions the act of writing poetry – a trick of self-conscious self-reflection that is perhaps a little overdone in this volume.)
Many of the poems are meditations upon the natural world. Sometimes – as in ‘Fallow’ – these relate to quite humble kinds of vegetation. Potatoes are as likely to be praised as poppies. Livingstone is encouraged by a life-force she discerns almost everywhere, as she imagines plants and bushes all longing to speak into humanity’s deaf ears. Hence in one poem, Livingstone imagines a walnut tree miming the uncompromising message Up lump. Come, undumb / yourself and me.
Livingstone’s poems often begin with an awareness of physical frailty (I heave my heavy body through the park or March sun is warming my winter body) and draw comfort from the abundance of a natural world where there is every kind of green, / as grass and leaf spring / fresh and sparkle in the sun. She sometimes also finds encouragement in human activity, being delighted by seeing Old Left grannies taking part in a demonstration or watching parents and children at the school gates or walking past a counterpane of picnic parties / popping corks on Hampstead Heath.
But, for all their lush and exuberant language, these relatively upbeat poems sometimes seem to be little more than reportage. Livingstone’s poetry becomes more compelling when it confronts deeper and darker human sorrows. Buried childhood grief surfaces in ‘Crying’ – Half asleep I catch myself sobbing; and, even more powerfully ‘Sorrow’ speaks of emotional pain: it pierces or it scorches / like a heart-shaped flat-iron.
It is not until about halfway through the book that we hear Livingstone’s angrier and more political voice. The poem ‘Toads’ draws on the natural world not for comfort but in order to paint a highly unflattering picture of a pair of politicians. They squat in Downing Street (another bit of Livingstonian word-play) and In the media their fleshy faces grin; but unfortunately they are not kind princes in disguise.
The strong feelings evident in ‘Toads’ seem to subside again for several pages – apart from a minor grumble against a developer whose unfitting eyesore blocks the poet’s view of a much loved tree. But political protest returns in the long poem ‘No Mean City’. This is something of a tour de force, being an impressionistic trip through multicultural London in a time of austerity where Sure Start schemes fold quietly. The poem is interspersed with quotations from (among others) Blake, Milton and the Bible and its trajectory orbits the round-bellied pregnant tents of the Occupy protest at St Paul’s in 2011. At times Livingstone rather sacrifices poetry in her eagerness to bewail unfairness or communicate a vision: Bankers’ pay goes on getting bigger is essentially a newspaper headline; and a longing for a city where humankind can grow to its potential is more fitting for a manifesto than for a poem. But at her best she can construct a few lines that are dense with vivid and powerful associated images. Giles Fraser, she reminds us, resigned from the staff of St Paul’s cathedral
… because he couldn’t stomach
those pregnant tents ripped open
and smashed down.
In the churchyard of St Paul the tentmaker
“the word was made flesh and pitched its tent among us”
Livingstone’s quite frequent use of Biblical references is unusual at a time when many British poets seem to go along with Alastair Campbell’s motto “we don’t do god”. She seems, however, to regard God as a powerful idea rather than an actual Entity – she declares that God is love who cannot be / except as love-among-humans; and she likewise treats the New Testament as a myth and metaphor of incarnation which can underpin the social and political gospel she preaches in ‘No Mean City’. But by the end of this honest and heartfelt collection one suspects that Livingstone’s dogged optimism and her capacity for righteous indignation might both spring from the same quasi-Biblical roots.