FAMOUSLY, Robert Graves claimed that poetry was a kind of “stored magic”. Rowan Williams’s Collected Poems — which unites his two Carcanet collections with Headwaters (2008), as well as his translations and a handsome sheaf of new poems — reveals a poet attentive to language’s precise and disconcerting magic.
These poems model the rich creative attentiveness shown by the best kind of reader and interpreter — a reader of visual art as well as of human beings, even those whom one might mark down as “counterfoils”. Of one such counterfoil, Nietzsche, he writes, “his breath, at the end, the sound Of footsteps on broken glass”.
This kindness becomes deep pathos and solidarity when he writes of friends (his poem for Gillian Rose, “Winterreise”, is a quiet triumph). In Williams’s hands, a poem — whether in response to a visit to a refugee camp, or a meeting with children from Nagasaki — becomes a way to treat tenderly with the incommensurate or dreadful. His sequence written for the 60th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster, “The Shortest Day”, is heartbreakingly restrained: “Nobody knows that this Is the shortest day. Midwinter.”
His writing is not unrelentingly sombre. Recent poems note the almost absurdist strain placed on life under the pandemic’s restrictions. In a section of his Easter 2020 poem “Noli me tangere”, he writes: “I could have said, Don’t touch Me; never mind the doctrine Mandating your distance.”
By his own account, Williams would wish to be “a poet for whom religious things mattered intensely”. This handsome, electrically charged collection confirms the truth of his aspiration.
Canon Rachel Mann is Area Dean of Bury and Rossendale, Assistant Curate of St Mary’s, Bury, and a Visiting Fellow of Manchester Met University.
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