DOUBLE Book Review: Sonnets from the Spirits and Petals of Vision by Christopher Villiers

Christopher Villiers strikes one’s interest. In Sonnets from the Spirits, a young theologian undertakes an ambitious project: I am reminded of a contemporary philosopher who noted that nothing coming after the New Testament has achieved its beauty. A tiny gameshow host appears on my retina asking, ‘will this guy live up to the challenge?’.

The answer is yes, tentative only out of piety. The medievalist Orthodox in me rears her head, thinking inevitably of the iconography dispute.

Formally speaking , poems such as ‘My Eve’ wear a mantle of angelic harmony. I feel these poems to be mimetic, functioning in an almost didactic way as an impetus: reconsider the Bible, the book tells me. There is a mixture of high and low sentiment, presumably catering to the contrast between man and God, which most of the time plays out pleasingly. Sometimes I would have liked a departure from that almost naive style clearly usurped from the Old Testament, but the poems have substance and are representative. Particularly powerful is the verse from ‘Abraham and Isaac’: ‘God will give us a lamb,” I speak kind lies/Or desperate hope, faith beyond reason’.

First person narrative makes the experience tense and heavy with the aura of stone millennia on one’s shoulders. ‘Samson’ is such a powerful poem, and has the quality of being more than reflective.

Cavafy’s historical poems come to mind, particularly Cavafy’s ‘Caesarion’ in comparison to ‘Saul’, although Villiers lacks the artistic preoccupation and prefers a sober tone. I am certain that things get complicated when it comes to such a delicate subject as Christianity, but I do wonder if Villiers will develop in this direction. His frankness when describing lust is a positive element in his writing, and he glows in the moments of expression that transcend ‘re-telling’. Evidently, the best poems by far are those in which you see the poet immersed absolutely in the communicated episode. Some are more remarkable than others in this sense, and the one that strikes me in particular is ‘Bathsheba’:’I see her bathing, her hills and valleys /Are ripe for conquest, Bathsheba thrills me.’

I cannot have the pretension of a contemporary work adding something to the most-read book in history. Villiers, I think, is conservative too in this sense, but he aims for something mimetic rather than impressionistic. His writing is like a prism: a bit of angular mirror reflecting light in many colors, quite lovely.

 

Petals of Vision is a collection that brings you close to the man inside. In a manner quite different from his previous collection, the poet weighs petty and momentous topics with the same sweet, meditative voice. Take a  ‘A Park Revisited’, which, like many other poems in Petals of Vision, possesses a piercing simplicity:

Where are you now? Do you remember me?

Can you still remember our summer here

And hereabouts?

Have years been kind to you?

There is both sadness and wonder well encased within this poet’s microcosm. No fanfares are present (though indeed sometimes I would have liked a bit more aplomb and even a sort of aggressiveness). Villiers possesses, however, a certain old-world elegance in word order and choice, sprinkled among a quotidian world of amorous deceptions and…the occasional presence of animals. Unusual, perhaps: it seems to signal an introvert who is in quiet communion with owls and dogs, and sometimes less so with people.

The book is a work not lacking in labour. As it progresses the reader finds him/herself sinking into aquatic introspection, as one does before the stars and the sea. Villiers’ poems are not elusive, but sincere and sensitive. The complex imagery indicates understated passion, a voluptuous and candid confession.’Morning was an unripe plum’: the poet bewitches us.

Some poems are remarkably intense, heavy with feeling in a strangely surprising way, like ‘Episode’:

I sit on the rim of my sanity,

Gazing down into the stony basin

As if expecting some new calamity;

A vineyard shrivelled into a raisin.

Value lies in the unexpected: the baby in ‘NewBorn’ is likened to a beetroot. Phrases like  ‘Can some time tell out the spring?’ are eyebrow-raising and effective. Also singular is the formal consistency of his poems: rhyme is so natural that you don’t notice its presence unless you look for it.

Christopher Villiers will flourish. I look forward to it.

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