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Dressed for Commotion: A review of All Fours by Nia Davies

By Jonathan Catherall.

All Fours by Nia Davies

Nia Davies, All Fours (Bloodaxe Books, 2017)

There’s an excitingly tentative quality to Nia Davies’ first full-length poetry collection, All Fours. Opening out to the provisional and the uncertain seems to be both an important thematic and aesthetic principle of composition for Davies. At a basic level, many of the poems brim with questions, several are phrased as riddles, and the voice or voices of her poems are often besieged with doubt. This is the case in ‘18’, where Davies both slyly and movingly channels a somewhat grandiose teenage “self”:

I can try and declare myself friendly, but I am 
terrible and to be noted           wind-slapped,

aching pussy, not sure what to want.

Much of the collection invokes the fairy tale or myth as an organising principle, and through these Davies stages a double opening: on the one hand, to a sheer abandonment to desire, drawn by adventure and the temptations of misrule, as when the first Pan of her ‘Pantheon’ “harps his rural / dis-idyll, the id’s own claw-hand”; on the other, to remain alive to and through a thinly-veiled fragility that these fantasies ostensibly seek to suppress. In ‘About me’, the very first poem in the collection, this is phrased as a recognition of the need for self-protection, but nevertheless a commitment to keep listening:

I would listen through lids, 
less scathing, less scrape and tangle.

Likewise, in ‘Mossy Coat’, with a nod to conceptions of gender as a performance most associated with the theorist Judith Butler, a hilarious panoply of literal and metaphorical dresses are manically put on and off by the poem’s speaker – worn and doffed not only by herself but also to clothe the man or men she addresses and fantasises about:  

I wanted the bad man to come back and fetch me. I wanted a loom as a bed.  I said my time with me should be limited.  I wanted masochistic dressing-up mode.

[…]

I couldn’t think about ‘I’ anymore, it was bad for me, so I thought about him all dressed up like a pig-herder or a mountain lion.

Davies’ first pamphlet, published by Salt in 2012, was titled Then Spree, and there is something of that roaring and seductive ‘dis-idyll’ about all her work. A subsequent pamphlet, Çekoslovakyalilastiramadiklarimizdanmisiniz or Long Words, from Boiled String/Hafan in 2016, wove compellingly odd riffs on the allegedly longest (and often ludicrous) words in a series of languages from Tagalog to Esperanto. Four of these were first published by 3:AM here and some of the poems from both those pamphlets are included in All Fours demonstrating much continuity in her questing, open, playful tone.

As well as the references to dressing or dressing up that abound in this collection, there’s an awareness of the conundrums that surround gender identification, a hybridity that extends to the animal (the All Fours of the title) and the divine:

And then they mentioned 
dog (they mean god) and made great commotion 
in the halls, did their hymns and rites.

I said oh dog no, he was never about this, 
they misunderstood him.

She revels in this admixture of qualities. ‘The First Riddle – Pussy Riddle Dialogue’ asks and answers:

What stinks to high heaven? 
Low heaven and its lovely sauce.

Similarly, the poems are animated by a music that refuses to settle: whether to settle down to a single rhythm, or to settle for less. Her forms are rarely entirely stable; rather, at their best they’re a hybrid concatenation, a connective tissue of “airs” that draw in different registers and repetitions, then go leafing off like Dionysian vines:

Call me mythic – I’m a toss-up between 
‘project’ and ‘ongoing’.  I’m nil-by-gusset, 
I am tall-boy.  Poppy, or die.  Seaweed, or die. 
St Tropez?  It was a place once 
and I called it home, soft-nuts. 
Soft-gusset.  Soft mushroom collar with a triple pleat.

Davies writes across the ‘mainstream’ and ‘avant-garde’, from an enticing but accessible place which is not simply between but often playing with the two. For example, ‘A word in your shell-like’ invokes once again the Dionysiac power of listening in a voluptuous romantic sweep worthy of a latter-day Swinburne:

Bed-worn, tied to the auricle 
pull of strange flowers, something sails: 
green beads on a black background, 
scurrilous shapes.  Marvel-vine, 
cave-dwelling hallucinations. 
We doze in the old kind of nourished.

But the work can then wittily undercut that lyricism, the “old kind of nourished”, in a modernist manner, invoking the medical name for the point half way down the outer ear where it meets the cheek:

             And what about my intertragic notch? 
Do you love so?  I love so.  Purring wonders 
come out of you spoon-eared.  Wonton soup 
is delivered, so tragic, as to be intertragic. 
Old soft lobes, you really test me. 

This manages to combine the aural, sexual suggestiveness and the sense of a loss of Eden in the cut, the “notch” of writing that comes “inter”, between lovers or between one’s own self and ear. As in many of her poems, there’s impressive comic skill even as she conveys something of great seriousness. At the same time, the flight of ideas from “spoon” into “wonton soup” is indicative of the way her language permits “scurrilous shapes” and so often puts up a resistance to easy resolution.

Sex, too, is a frequent source of that scurrilousness, but also of the opening out to the world, as “a universal human baseline … the species’ in-joke”. Or, humour as resistance, as in ‘18’:

Wondered whether I’d die like 
this with a cock in my mouth, that’s

a flashback, that’s why everything has a trigger 
warning now, that’s when the idea 
            full throttle 
becomes hundreds of droplets, panic.

This is a striking meta-metaphysical conceit, given the way it enacts the violence of the phallic explosion of the “idea” itself, only to set it in a faintly mocking context, while also figuring an act of love. In each poem of this collection, the poet regains power over the words in her mouth through repetition, through awareness of the mellifluous, ambivalent, often anarchic pleasure and disturbance she can invoke for us with them. 

 

Jonathan Catherall

ABOUT THE AUTHOR 
Jonathan Catherall has published poems in Datableed3:AMTears in the FenceThe Frogmore Papers and others. He has performed his work at Caplet, Words & Jazz, and in the spontaneous poetry/art collaboration event Erratic Scores; and has reviewed for The Literateur and The Wolf.  He works in the charity and cultural sector.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, October 17th, 2017.