This superb collection of poems, each one accompanied by Chris Humphrey’s impressive colour photographs, comprises observations about different walks written in sections that are linked by landscape, small journeys, reflections and moments of vision that are ‘undramatic and intangible but real’.
With ‘Words Inside a Birthday Card’ the poet begins his journey with a choice, for one ‘can go three ways’: alongside a wall, into a churchyard with yew trees or straight ahead towards the river although time is too short and the weather too cold to appreciate the mallards ‘swimming, flying’. Yet he does stop for a robin is singing ‘and going on singing’, a continuity that brings in ‘other birds singing’ so that anyone watching will find they need to listen and go on listening.
A description of insects, halfway to wasps in size, introduces a hint of heaven for they are like ‘a ladder of angels ascending and descending beside the robin’s tall tree’ – a welcome sight for they are ‘part of the livingness of the world’ and, together with all the opening and growing of buds and leaves, cause the first of the changes in the narrator for he, who had been ‘impatient and depressed’ finds the dark mood falling away.
The next section is intriguingly named ‘A Lost View’ which, for years, has been remembered and looked for in vain. Other views of Llandaff are ‘lovely’ but ‘not what I remember’. The discovery, when it happens, occurs accidently while the poet is ‘intent on water’ and this in turn reminds him of Shelley who wrote about his own journeying ‘I always go on until I am stopped, full stop, and I never am stopped, full stop’.
The title section ‘Visions of Llandaff’ begins with ‘Summer rain on leaves and old stone.’ There is much to see but more important than the seeing is ‘the feeling’ of a ‘soft fellowship in which things bloom and are tenderly magnified’ – a special way of feeling which seems to be offered as a gift and, if one is distracted by lesser things, can be ‘rerun’ again ‘in thought’ together with a resolution to do better ‘with the next gift that is offered.’ This is the heart of the vision in the collection’s title, a reference to fragments that can still be gathered up, a ‘transfiguring’ remembered from ‘an intense early version’ when, as a lonely adolescent, the author kept company with a squirrel that was ‘the one other unrooted thing’ in a landscape of an old castle ‘surrounded by tall trees and a soft rain’.
If the fragments of insight, the seeing and the feeling, are the heart of the poet’s vision, then the Cathedral with ‘the elegant gold cockerel on the spire’ is the focal point. For once, he says, ‘I don’t just see, I register this incarnation of the divine as human’. Or maybe it’s not the building that is central but the outside, the rain on the steps, the weeds, and plants, ‘masses of luxuriant wet growth’, the impression ‘that I have, for all my inattention, completed something.’
The completion of a sequence of beautiful poems, certainly. John Freeman, as always, shows himself to be an outstanding poet. But there is something about this sequence which, to me, feels more haunting than usual, a joyful vision but one that is also fugitive and sad. Yet, the ending is clear. A candle is lit in a ritual that is not hollow. A path leads through ‘a tunnel of buddleia’. Something has happened and changed. ‘The space is not empty.’
Mandy Pannett 18th December 2022