Damian Walford Davies
(Seren Books, 2012); pbk, 8.99
Seven sections, each with seven poems, and each poem composed of seven couplets – sounds like an incantation?
It isn’t. This is the formal structure of Damian Walford Davies’ new poetry collection, enticingly entitled, Witch.
The witch hunt is chronicled in seven sections, each voiced in the first person by a single persona, except the third part with the voices of the villagers.
The horrors of a fictitious seventeenth-century Suffolk witch hunt are brought to life with the dramatic play and pull of voices and a fascinating interplay of sounds and images in each poem.
Each poem is aurally compact – the rhyming is controlled and never overdone. In a fine example of assonance and alliteration from the first poem, the village priest describes:
damson orchards blemishing
the light, the river slick
with fish; those millsails beating
on the pent-up pond. . .
This poem which opens and closes the collection, suggests that after the trial and execution of the “witch” equilibrium is restored. However, the final couplet reads:
My garden borders on the deadfold
where they murder down the lambs.
The sense of foreboding these lines instil is hard to shrug off.
At the thematic centre of this collection is the complex relationship between male desire and female body, and how that dynamic is set off against the puritanical codes of civil war society. Davies specifically dates the unfolding of this tragedy to 1643-44, beginning at the start of the liturgical year, at the advent of Lent.
The desire of the men for the widow, Clemence Addy, and her daughter, Alyce, is keenly present throughout. The private confessions start with the priest, ironically named Love, when he sees Clemence and Alyce enter the parish church:
The light struck Alyce differently
this evening, entering through
rich glass to dye and dapple her. . .
I laid the wafer on her tongue. . .
They continue with the village gentleman, Nicholas Strelley, who secretly lusts after Clemence Addy :
Sodden, I saw
my wife again, a woman
on a slender lip of land
. . . Her purple petals dazzled. Love!
I tendered. Then I said it: witch.
Giles Selwyn, one of the villagers, matter-of-factly states:
She’s pert, but it’s the girl
I’d take the marshy road
The frustration of this desire makes it, like the drink Love offers Alyce, ‘cloying, curdled, over-spiced.’ It poisons the heads of these men who cannot control such knowing gipsy women. Their subverted masculine passion is channelled into a violence which society can accept.
As Giles says of Alyce:
Scratch her; draw
the badness from that gipsy
Love tries to manipulate the women into social submission by saying:
hone their panic at the smile
withheld, the greeting not
At this, Clemence Addy, possibly well aware that she cannot escape the fate in store for her, replies:
your petty hankerings;
I nurse my hurt and hunger
The fifth section belongs to Francis Hurst, the inquisitor or, as the roll call makes clear, ‘ Discoverer of witches’ with the publication of several tracts to his credit, the latest being,
. . . Christ’s
Hammer, or, the Witch laid bare.
Until her last moments, the witch is also a woman, and a woman firmly positioned in this volatile dynamic of repressed desire. In the final section, Love says:
on his, he held her like
a husband by the waist,
and let her go.
This haunting tale from another period elaborates on themes which forever resonate, man – woman, good- evil, action- repression, and so on. But Davies’ craftsmanship makes this collection a rare and sophisticated expression of these themes. For this reader,Witch is an unequivocal success.