Wild Court

An international poetry journal based in the English Department of King’s College London

Paths chosen and unchosen: on ‘Downland’ by Anna Dillon and Jonathan Davidson

David Clarke

For those of us who have been following Jonathan Davidson’s work in recent years, each new book has brought with it the prospect of another (often unexpected) push against the boundaries of what a book of poems, or indeed a book about poetry, can be. This is a writer who is clearly no longer content to produce another slim volume of verse, although he has produced fine ones of those too. His previous book, A Commonplace (2020; which I reviewed here) brought together Davidson’s own work, favourite poems by others, and enlightening and entertaining commentary on both. Its cover featured a striking painting of Didcot power station (‘The Industrial Henge’) by Anna Dillon, whose images now feature alongside Davidson’s poetry in a new volume with Two Rivers Press, entitled Downland.

The landscape that Davidson drives, walks, but most of all cycles through in these poems is familiar from earlier work, but his poetic exploration of the North Wessex Downs, and in particular the Ridgeway, is accompanied in Downland by twenty-five of Dillon’s vibrant paintings. The poems and paintings plot a journey that could be reconstructed by the reader off the page, using the map and the handy Ordinance Survey references in the appendices. In this way, the book is an invitation to get out into the landscape it describes, and Dillon’s paintings, which use swathes of colour to draw us into each scene, exert that same pull on the viewer: one has the sense of being flung up into the sky or out towards the horizon.

The poems too have a strong sense of movement, and not just when the poet is riding his trusty bicycle. But this is much less a travelogue than it is the exploration of the relationship between movement in space and movement in time, both personal and historical. In ‘Bury Down’, for example, a painting by Dillon that reveals a vast and open sky is accompanied by a poem for Davidson’s father, in which the scattering of ashes sees the ‘man released from all / his days, and away, and away, and away’. At other moments, ancestors appear out of a landscape, not as haunting presences, but as reassuring connections to the past. For instance, in ‘Kingstanding Hill’, poppies mass among the grassland in Dillon’s painting and then appear to move towards the poet like ‘all my known people, / coming to meet me, walking / from the was, the used to be.’

Industrial Henge © Anna Dillon

Figures are often disappearing into this landscape, or emerging from it, escaping or returning to their lives, or gently reminding the inhabitants of the presence of past existences both ‘empty’ and filled with ‘weary joy’ (‘Juniper Hollow’). In ‘Unhill Woods’, the poet remembers himself as a boy running away from home and imagines what it would be like to be ‘still there now, lying among leaves’. Poems like these express that ambivalence of middle age about the paths chosen and unchosen, both literarily and metaphorically. So, for instance, ‘Towards Lowbury Hill’ riffs on Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’: ‘Near here two roads cross; / one plausibly the past, one / supposedly the future.’ The comparatively strident tone of Frost’s original, in which the poet affirms the choice made, is undercut here with a sense that control over one’s destiny is illusory: Davidson’s poem ends with the speaker suspended between ‘east’ and ‘west’, never quite able to commit fully to the one option or the other.

This reference to Frost also invokes the ghost of Edward Thomas, given that ‘The Road Not Taken’ emerged from the friendship and dialogue between the two poets. Maura Dooley’s informative introduction to this volume notes that Thomas himself knew the landscape of Downland well, and had published his own account of walking the Icknield Way, to which Davidson also dedicates a poem. Davidson’s poems share with Thomas that close engagement with landscape by the walker-poet, but also an interest in Englishness. Whereas for Thomas that concern grew in the face of the destruction brought about by the First World War, Davidson imagines English landscape not as something eternal to be defended, but rather as ever-changing and, ultimately, impermanent:

When we’re all gone, all come
to earth or air, this will be the last place
in England and then, uncultivated, these
will be the last fields in England, their paths
and their headlands all that remain of us.

(‘Three English Fields’)

Lurking here is a consciousness not only of the transience of human beings and the meanings they make in and through the landscape, but also that sense, so specific to the Anthropocene, of humanity itself as a passing phenomenon in the longer history of the land.

Juniper Hollow © Anna Dillon

If all of this makes Davidson’s poetry sound too weighty in its themes, then the experience of reading the book is anything but. Melancholy is finely balanced here with (often rueful) wit, as when the poet gets into an argument with a crow who drops a stone on him while he is riding his bicycle (‘Segbury Camp’). These are also poems that share with their readers the joy and wonder of encounter with landscapes that are both familiar and essentially mysterious.

That quality of mystery is central to Dillon’s paintings, for which she cites both Eric Ravilious and John Nash as influences, among others. The artworks certainly seem to combine the dream-like qualities of Ravilious’s paintings with the often stark lines and the use of blocks of colour in Nash’s images, which give his work an uncannily hyperreal quality at times. In that spirit, the cover painting for Downland, which shows a country road on a bright morning, perfectly captures an experience I’m sure many of us will have had: of being out in the countryside in light that seems to leave every line too clean, every colour too bright, so that reality seems almost too real. That quality of experience is very much present, too, in many of Davidson’s intense and pared down poems.

Together, Dillon and Davidson have produced a volume in which the poems and the images resonate, although they are only very rarely a direct commentary on each other. In that sense, Downland is certainly not a book of ekphrastic poetry, which is all to the good. The poems and the paintings deepen our appreciation of different views of the same landscape, whether in words or in paint, and provide different points of entry into this journey through a very particular part of the world, which both Dillon and Davidson clearly love. The book is handsomely produced by Two Rivers Press, with generous and high-quality reproductions of Dillon’s paintings, which do full justice to her use of colour. Taken together, this all makes for a very satisfying, genre-defying collection of words and images.