Damian Walford Davies – Witch

Title: Witch
Author: Damian Walford Davies
Published: 2012, Seren
Notes: I read the ebook edition of this book on the Bluefire iOS app, using the Caru Darllen/Love Reading service, which offers free ebook lending through libraries in Wales. 

This book initially caught my eye as it’s written by Damian Walford Davies, one of my lecturers during my time at Aberystwyth University in 2004-2007. I have another of his books, written in collaboration with Richard Marggraf-Turley (another of my lecturers), but I’ve not gotten around to reading that yet.

This was a quick, but by no means easy read. Set in England in 1643-4, the story poems deal with a community’s growing suspicion and terror at the prospect of a witch operating in their midst. The story is told through the eyes of a priest, a gentleman, the villagers, a witch hunter and a judge.

The story is simple but the narrative is complex – in a 2014 edition of the Literature Wales e-newsletter, Walford Davies’s poetry is described as: “[having] the air of riddles that need untying: they are tricksy poems, one part grit and two parts smokescreen.” I’d certainly agree with that analysis. Among the heady, evocative and visceral imagery, a reader may find themselves lost in the verse, having to skip back to the beginning of the book or chapter to remind themselves whose verses they are reading. It is not always clear who is speaking in each of the sections, and this makes for an air of confusion throughout. This is not a criticism, but more a testament to the strong sense of disorientation found within the pages.

The book begins with the voice of Thomas Love, the priest. Initially, the verse is subdued, almost pastoral, as the description of the village is laid before us. As the book progresses, and more accusations and suspicions are revealed, the verse becomes violent, culminating in the hanging of the accused, before the narrative finally moves back to Love in a cyclical return to the themes and settings at beginning of the poem. However, Love’s gentle verse is not without its own visceral imagery: he remarks on the villager’s capture of wildfowl (“They gathered up a brace of snipe/barred bodies in a limp embrace,”); the shadows cast by the church’s stained windows (“I saw the tendrils of the Jesse Tree/about her hair, the Saviour’s/lacerated yellow sallowing her cheek.”) and the talents of the woodcutter in Heaven’s Hue and Cry (“Whoever cut the woodblock/had a canny hand: see how the hanged/man’s kicking creases up his clothes,/the out-of-kilter of his lover’s neck,”). We are also introduced to another character in this first section: Love’s pet marmoset, Zekiel. This strange, almost comic element of the verse again adds to the sense of unease and doubt in the poem.

The next section of the verse is still unclear to me at the moment – this is my interpretation: a gentleman falls in the church whilst cleaning the eaves. A woman (His wife? a friend? This is ambiguous but I suspect I haven’t read deeply enough into the text) is then eventually accused, albeit in a roundabout way, of being a witch. Gradually the villagers voice their opinion in support of the accusation. Soon, Francis Hurst, “Discoverer of witches” enters the scene on request of the villagers. Hurst, who is the author of the tract “Christ’s Hammer; or, the Witch Laid Bare” is the Witchfinder character of legend – instructing the people to search for “secret spots” on the flesh of the accused, asking them to “prick the place. You’ll find it/deadened if she’s given suck”. Hurst promises that “If there is wickedness/I’ll wrench it by the roots”. The poem concludes with Love’s voice once again, documenting the hanging of the witch. Walford Davies creates a palpable sense of tension in this last verse, as we read about the executioner’s botched job and Zekiel’s excited grin with his “shocking dog-teeth/devilish”.

I’m very glad I borrowed this, but I think I will be buying a physical copy of the book so I can read it again soon. The service I used to read it only allows me to have it on my device for a maximum of three weeks, and I’d like to return to the book in a couple of months to read it with fresh eyes. Walford Davies has presented to us a strong, vivid, frightening poem that is as powerful as it is violent, and the intricacies and riddles of the verse mean that previously hidden elements of the poem will become more apparent as you gradually decipher the puzzle on each subsequent read through.

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