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Sharing Grounds: A Commonplace

By Fiona Glen.

Jonathan Davidson, A Commonplace: Apples, Bricks & Other People’s Poems (The Poetry Business, 2020)

As Jonathan Davidson will often tell you, he loves bricks. His newly released A Commonplace: Apples, Bricks, and Other People’s Poems, is filled with things that are not commonplace in a poetry collection, from a comprehensive bibliography and gazetteer to plentiful footnotes and commentary to several ‘other people’s poems’ – including the very first poem in the collection. By placing Richie McCaffery’s ‘Brick’ on the threshold of A Commonplace, Davidson lays the foundations of a book which celebrates how poetry is shared—co-constructed by a community in dialogue. In its openness, generosity and polyvocality, this seems a political project. Its framework resonates with Davidson’s fury over privatisation, repressive regimes, and backwards-looking nationalisms—a fury that simmers beneath so many of his poems, alongside his joyful attention to and enjoyment of the land, and his respect for the dignity of crafts and workers.

A hopeful socialism can be read between his lines—I imagine that Davidson pictures poetry as place-making, or common-place-making. Perhaps he sees each poem sent out to be read as a new brick, helping to form an open home for all. He goes on to write about bricks named utopia —as bricks being cut and fired—to write of bricklaying as a language:

Who cut the sweet, pale clay
Of sentences and fired them
In common kilns to make
The narratives that keep us home and dry.                                        (‘Bricklaying’)

Land marks and is marked by language. In ‘William Smith’s Poem’ (written from the impassioned perspective of the creator of Britain’s first geological map) Davidson imagines rock and soil forming dialects, inflected by their changing form, gradient, materiality, and tone: ‘The colours are the accent of the land, the roll / Of language – languorous or clipped – is scarp’. These rich slippages between craft and literature, language and landscape run through A Commonplace, embodying Davidson’s view of poetry as a lived art form, as enacted, as construction. For him, poems house us, alter our worlds, and are carried through life, nested into thoughts and everyday objects: books, drawers, wallets. Poetry becomes folded into our relationships to the common things whose nuance he is committed to revealing in his own poetry.

…I gave up and ate wild strawberries
out of your hand for sweetness.

I lipped at your palm –
the little salt edge there,
the tang of money you’d handled.

As we stayed in the wood, hidden..

Helen Dunmore’s ‘Wild Strawberries’, in Davidson’s words, ‘contains many excellent things’. It holds the tender pains of slipping memory in the ‘sliding’ juice of the fruits which are ‘so quickly over’. It holds the minute frustrations and failures that mark love and lovemaking in a basket of dockleaves, woven to cradle the tender berries, which rebelliously ‘unplai[t] themselves’. And so, Dunmore’s strawberries join Davidson’s bricks as familiar touchpoints which open out to address far more.

Davidson calls bricks ‘life-giving in their lifelessness’; he calls poems as nourishing as ‘food and drink’. Attentive to the nurturing nature of these things, A Commonplace has been created as a clear act of nurture. Its warmth and praise of other voices recall  Jack Underwood’s notion of ‘kindness’ in empathetic poetry that welcomes plurality:

‘I mean kindness in the sense that poems can show how there are different kinds of the same kind, and that to feel this contradiction, to rediscover its complexity, is the kindness that a poem can offer.’

Kind poems can already feel like tiny, delicate, powerful gifts—and A Commonplace gives us these along with a generously-guided journey through Davidson’s writing and reflecting upon each poem. He walks with us, promising things and then giving them; he imparts the personal (‘when I write poetry I think of myself disturbing the silence with some little sounds’); he trusts that we will become acquainted through these pages (you’ll know by now that I like this a lot in poetry’). And, in reading, we do come to know Davidson’s cares and concerns, something which surely makes it easier to share them. There is no space for aloof coolness or mystification here, when we have so much to protect—to nurture.

This is a kind book. It asks us to send in recordings of its poems in our own accents and is peppered with footnotes asking us questions such as ‘What is your favourite prehistoric road?’. Moving with the ease rhythm of speech, it appears as con-verse-ation—posing poetry as a somewhat sympoeitic art, or an act of togetherness: ‘The sharing’s the thing.’

Forever borrowing and trading, Davidson reminds us that poets ‘owe’ one another. He lays out his own ‘debts’ or influences proudly. Nothing is jealously guarded; Davidson’s common place has no space for territoriality. He dedicates his poem ‘Cycling’ to Mick North, whose ‘belter of a poem’, ‘Land’, was so current forty years after its writing that I believed it to have been written about Brexit, and today’s Conservative UK government’s stance of entitled superiority over its public:

Who tends the rowan
in the fern-decked gill?
They will answer you
with the Law’s petrified truth,
with broken promises and written proof

with unbridled market forces
and a fine tradition of breeding horses.

Questions of power, control, and ideology cut across eras and contexts in A Commonplace, illustrating one element of how poetry—and culture more broadly—can be used and shared by political communities across the world. Davidson invites Catherine Byron’s ‘Night Flight to Belfast’ and ‘Zero Hour’ by Ernesto Cardenal into his commonplace; in the former, soldiers hammer on the doors of unfamiliar unionist homes, and in the latter, crowds are dispersed with teargas while the Guatemalan dictator Ubico contemplates murder over cigarettes. Moving to Kiev, Davidson considers the fate of ‘Avant-garde writers of the nineteen twenties, / Repressed in the nineteen thirties’ in ‘Striletska Street 15’. Placed together in A Commonplace, these poems find open-ended connections and shared grounds—shared struggles.

Through poetry, A Commonplace stands for access and empowerment, for freedom from state intimidation and enclosure, and for ownership of the lands we live from. It argues for—by celebrating—the vitality of poetry: its vivid, living nature and its empathetic necessity in our critical matters. This concern, and his apparent disdain for politics which seek to turn Britain inwards, is what guards Davidson’s work against the significant risk of seeming pastoral, or over-invested in the ‘old’ features of English life which dominate his work: apple orchards, country roads, bicycles, bricks. A Commonplace elevates whichever common things are yours, without insisting that apples and bricks are everyone’s grounding.

Among the many generosities of this book, one is detail. Davidson’s gazetteer is made to—sincerely, it seems—offer the grid references of the precise locations where his poems are based, allowing us to visit. The abundantly detailed footnotes are a formal gesture, but also an attempt to demystify and further share the circumstances of how poems came into being. For instance, while we do not need to know the make of Davidson’s bike, pencil, notepad, saddlebags as he jumps off his bicycle to write ‘The Back Roads’, the mild absurdity of their inclusion in his commentary is humanising; it also helps to form an image of real moment where a poem was created, banishing the idea that artworks appear, fully formed, from nowhere—or from the muse’s mouth.

But while Davidson does not place poetry on a pedestal, he is filled with praise for others’ work, telling us how Zaffar Kunial’s ‘The Lyric Eye’ is ‘beautifully complex… then simple in its assertion’, and how Jackie Kay’s ‘Darling’ ‘holds grief in its arms and sings it to sleep’. There is a sense of responsibility taken for annotating his inclusions, and of an unguarded desire to show new readers of poetry how his love for the art has formed, in the hope that they too will form their own love.

In curating a cluster of poems that have affected him, Davidson forms another reference, or resonance, in the title of A Commonplace: the commonplace book. Since ancient times, these have been the verbal equivalent of a scrapbook, a sketchbook, a database, or a Tumblr (take your pick), in which their keepers recorded and ordered ideas, information and ephemera that influenced their own thinking. Commonplace books are often composed by multiple people: a communal resource and a site of exchange. They are (ultimately) gathering places, and they have also (ultimately) fallen out of fashion. But at a time when we cannot truly gather (making us more drawn than ever to a sense of what can be shared), this gesture towards a commonplace book transmits not only a sense conversation and togetherness, but the joyous potential that is spring-triggered, timelessly, each time we share words that have glimmered for us—or which have made the world glimmer differently.

In his Enthusiast!, David Herd describes enthusiasm as ‘[the desire] to pass things on. Plato put it in terms of magnetic rings, Shaftesbury described it as ‘an itch of imparting’, of ‘kindling the same fire in other breasts’.’ My enthusiasm is kindled and itched (or tickled?) by Davidson’s. Writing about his writing, I find myself borrowing his directness, find myself wanting to tell you, truly, that these are poems that I will carry, use, and live with. A Commonplace gives me faith in poetry, and how it can build shared grounds through diversity. Our commonplaces may be different kinds of the same kind, but this is what makes them all resound together.

Fiona Glen is a Scottish writer and artist based in London, where she works on landscapes, creatures, and ecologies. Her critical writing has previously appeared in publications including Art & the Public Sphere, Simulacrum, Aesthetica online, and NOIT Journal by Flat Time House.    @fionaglenkerr (Twitter) @fiona_____glen (Instagram)

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 10th, 2020.