TEXT review

Conversations of Past and Present

review by Bronwen Levy



Liam Guilar
Lady Godiva and Me
Nine Arches Press, Rugby, Warwickshire, UK, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-9560559-1-0
Pb, 50 pp, AU$15 within Australia from the author (lguilar@gmail.com), or UK£5 from Nine Arches Press at www.ninearchespress.com


I know this place, but wouldn't claim it mine.
Mine is the space between the rising and the falling foot. (50)

This couplet ends the final poem, 'Talking Nothing to the Stone', in Liam Guilar's new book, Lady Godiva and Me. This collection, Guilar's third, is about the relation between its speaker, a modern-day poet, ex-Coventry, and someone rather like, but not identical to, the author himself, an Australian poet who hails originally from the West Midlands English city. The speaker's space, 'between the rising and the falling foot', suggests journey-in-process, poetry-in-the-making, stories-in-the-telling; and refers back to the sentiments of the first poem in the collection, 'Dedication: For Lady G', in which Lady Godiva is exhorted to confound definitions and trust her judgement:

Reject all binary oppositions,
as unthinking superstitions,
step out, and trust yourself,
and then ride on. (n.p.)

Lady Godiva becomes a symbol of liberty and free thought, who exceeds the legends and the familiar, smutty stories.

This is an ambitious and engaging collection. Guilar takes the historical figure of Godgifu (meaning 'god-given' or 'God's gift'), who was an Anglo-Saxon lady, and the legendary figure she became (Lady Godiva, who rode naked on horseback through the streets of Coventry as the price to her husband to relieve the populace of unfair taxes), and brings the story to symbolic life in modern-day Coventry, a city famous now for its freeways and shopping malls, its football, and its cathedral, bombed-out in World War 2, with a new one built beside.

The book's fifty pages comprise a structured sequence of poems: structure is all in this contemporary re-telling. The book begins with the dedicatory poem, mentioned above; and, after giving details of the cast of characters, moves to the main 'Lady Godiva and Me' sequence. This comprises some forty-three poems, usually of three to four stanzas, or half a page, each, in three main sections. The first, 'The Prologue', has the contemporary speaker-poet reminiscing on Coventry, his childhood there, the legend, and the history of Anglo-Saxon England just before the 1066 Norman invasion. The second section, 'Anglo-Saxon to "Medieval": History to Legend', tells the Godiva story with poems narrated by different players in it: Lady G. herself; her husband, Leofric, Earl of Mercia; Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England, presented here as sexually involved with Lady G.; a Contemptus Mundi preacher with, as the name suggests, a strong distaste for the worldly pleasures of the flesh; and the lecherous Peeping Tom, who wrongly watched Godiva on her ride and who appears in the third section, 'The Modern City', as a contemporary voyeur.

Modern Coventry is presented as an Irish immigrant city, lively, irreverent, poor, in which our young speaker-poet seeks, but does not yet fully experience, love and poetry. The final poem, mentioned above, appears after the 'Lady Godiva and Me' sequence, and features the poet-speaker addressing the plaque in modern-day Coventry which commemorates Godiva's mythical ride. The plaque is not equal to its task, so that the book as a whole becomes a more fitting tribute to Godiva and all she represents; although this estimation is left to the reader. More modestly, although ironically, the speaker-poet wonders if his words speak anything at all, or nothing, but he is now free to move beyond place (Coventry) and legend (received stories) and into the world, in the sense of journey and of poetry. Significantly, he writes his tribute on the occasion of his return visit to Coventry. But it is a visit only. He no longer lives there.

Structure is all in a book of poems which reads like a play or perhaps a collection of mediaeval tales, and which stretches across historical time and geographical space. Godiva rode through the streets of Coventry; immigrants from Ireland and beyond have come to live there; the speaker-poet no longer lives in the city. There is a mediaeval influence in the generic presentation: the voices or characters speak for themselves, with no novelistic narrative thread combining them, and only rudimentary stage-directions in the form of a list of cast members. The reader must focus, and be alert to changes of voice from one poem to another. This stripping-away of a realist structure, while evoking the Anglo-Saxon world of Godiva in form as well as content, also suggests the post-modern literary forms of the late capitalist world, so that the collection moves between its originating forms and genres, much as the legend of Godiva is shown to circulate between a pre-mediaeval world, where Norman England has not yet been established, and the modern world, where the glory of Britain and its Empire now lies in the past. Godiva's ride is said to have occurred not long before the Invasion, but the legend is a mediaeval one.

And what of the poems themselves? I am impressed by the writing, which demands full and careful attention. To read these poems, the reader must inhabit the world, or the voices, of the writing; must engage with the rhythms, and the spare poetic structures. The poems are conversational, in the sense that they are made to be read aloud as well as on the page; but their sometimes declaratory structures are tight and taut without being confining. There is a pleasing sense in which the poems, through the speaker-poet, are encouragingly aware of their own intentions, and we are invited to maintain distance if we wish to: 'feel free . . . to distrust the story', which is, after all, the speaker-poet's 'version of her version of events' (48). This is one, or maybe yet another, account of Lady Godiva, but one in which her importance for the speaker-poet is reflected on deliberately.

Think of this, of a story that is presented as heard in the making, and which echoes along the streets and down the centuries:

The sound of hoof-fall in the silence:
ice cracking; locks bursting
cobbles splitting; grass thrusting
shading the grey streets green. (22)

Heard, but not seen, and the sounds of the words, the precise consonants and short syllables, suggest it. Then, consider this:

The stolid burghers say that she is proud.
They praise her charity.
I know a different lady. A rose
At peace with its own arrogance. (24)

This splendid image of feminine agency, albeit from the point of view of an enamoured speaker, is captured, but only just, in a masculine writing which refers to mediaeval and to modern imagery but which, to my reading, does not seek, quite, to contain, although some of the voices in it certainly do. For the speaker-poet, language, found in the books in the city library-that trope of working-class writing-is 'the door that opened on the universe' (31), whether Beowulf and Arthurian legends, or children's adventure stories of the mid-twentieth century, all mixed in with the stories and characters of his own childhood world around him.

Who will hear Godiva now, and how will they hear her? What is the relation between Lady Godiva or Lady G., the famous figure of legend, and the poet-speaker? This question is asked by an intriguing collection which, in the telling, goes quite some way towards providing, and demonstrating, an answer. The book shows how the old stories of England still have currency for writers, and that their retelling is significant for modern writing, and the modern world, even, I would suggest, where that modern world is far away, in Australia.



Bronwen Levy is Senior Lecturer in the School of English, Media Studies and Art History at the University of Queensland, where she teaches women's, twentieth-century, and Australian writing.


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Vol 13 No 2 October 2009
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Jen Webb