Embodiment is a less scary word than incarnation but its choice as title of Dinah Livingstone’s tenth collection reflects her loyalty to Christian theology as a central metaphor. This consistency also allows her to lay claim to a continuous selfhood:
I knew that I was me when I was five,
I’m grown up now and not a little girl
but still myself, though I don’t look the same. ‘Keeping Faith’
The continuity is upheld despite physical changes in the body she speaks from. Livingstone maintains that the poetic voice is always embodied which is why so many of these poems are written in her own voice and explore her own experience. About three fifths of the poems use the first person where this can be identified with the poet. It is not egotistical self-indulgence that motivates her writing, but the belief that physical life on earth is a common or shared experience and that if the poet writes accurately and honestly in their own embodied voice the words will communicate and recognised by others. The first half of the collection uses not only the voice of the poet but includes and acknowledges the voices of others:
Any voice, whether
of someone dear, or hated
like an obnoxious politician,
though each speaks the language
of its social niche, its daily connections,
has its unique print. ‘Loved Voices’
Sometimes, she simply describes the other voice, be it neighbour, teacher, grandson or even the poet, Stevie Smith. In other cases, she takes different personas, as in the delightful sonnet shared between a boy and a fox. In ‘The Yearning Strong’, an eco-protest, she invents a voice from the future which uses the perspective of distance to record some of her own most cherished experiences: ‘There’s a huge animal you can ride on,/stroke its furry neck and trot/through the wood or gallop over the moor.’ In another very powerful poem, she reports the voices of drowning migrants in English and through some of their own languages. This poem records a failure of communication in one of the few moments where the overall tone of positivity falters:
Something is very wrong.
What can we do?
Perhaps the implicit message is the importance of listening and hearing, without which there can be no action.
In the second part of the collection, ‘Embodiment’, the voice is the same and themes are developed from the first section which are familiar from the writer’s other work. The first poem, which relates to the cover reproduction from Blake’s illustrations of Paradise Lost, serves as a manifesto. For Livingstone, as for Blake and Stevie Smith in the first section, gods are human inventions and their stories are metaphors or projections of what humans want:
the full embodiment of Christ will be
an actual reign of kindness long imagined,
which now – with nothing supernatural –
ordinary people try (or not)
by love and work to give something towards. ‘Alpha and Omega’
The confident ‘will’ in the first line of this quotation is slightly undermined by the bracketed ‘or not’ in the penultimate, perhaps reinforcing the recognition that it is up to humans what they make of the world.
In the sequence Keeping Faith, Livingstone brings together two of her concerns, the nature of the self and the embodiment of ‘faith and hope and love’ in a world where ‘kindness’ in its fullest sense prevails. I think this is because the fullest embodiment comes through self-realization, as in ‘November’ where she describes a plane tree: “Self-possessed, this London plane/spreads high into the blue’ , a notion of self-hood clearly derived from Hopkins. To oversimplify, the best community will be reached through ‘all those different selves’ achieving their full potential or selfhood. Sometimes it seems that ‘embodiment’ is purely physical; sometimes, it seems to include works of art, such as a poem.
Or you write what you didn’t expect
and it is beyond prose –a poem.
And when, at last, your living child is born,
you see his face and the midwife
gives you him to hold,
himself and snuffling in your arms. ‘Nature and Grace’
However, the age-old divide between body and spirit is challenged in ‘Prologue’, an introductory sonnet to the sequence Embodiment: ‘How could a disembodied spirit speak/or dance or sing the paradox, the power,/the passion and the truth of human hearts?’ We may note the verbs, ‘speak’, ‘dance’ and ‘sing’ are all rooted in the body, and presented as the only way in which the abstractions of ‘power’, ‘passion’ and ‘truth’ can be expressed, i.e., physically.
Among other things, this book confronts the process of aging with grace. Although it could be described as mellower than some of her other work, this is a collection in which Livingstone continues to observe, celebrate and strive.
Kathleen McPhilemy 2nd September 2019