Saturday, 30 November 2019
Review by Jonathan Taylor of "Walking the Coventry Ring Road with Lady Godiva" by Cathy Galvin
Famously, in Dante’s Inferno, the poet follows Virgil down through the circles of hell, meeting the famous dead en route. In Cathy Galvin’s new and compelling pamphlet, Walking the Coventry Ring Road with Lady Godiva, the narrator follows Godiva (‘Godgifu’) round the circles of Coventry ring road, ‘following a road, a river, a prayer.’
This is not really an inferno – the narrator remarks at one point ‘there are no circles of hell, just this road’ – but rather a kind of limbo, a ‘circling sandstone,’ which, at least in these poems, delineates a circular history, as much as it does a city’s geography. Like W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, Galvin’s beautiful pamphlet is a walk through a circular, eternally-recurring history of destruction – from the city’s bombing in the Second World War, to the ruinous rebuilding of the city in the 1950s and 60s, to the poverty and job losses of the 80s, captured by the Specials in their well-known song about Coventry, ‘Ghost Town,’ and ultimately to post-industrial decay:
Just watch me walk beside the demolition
of buildings that once rose to post-war visions,
the planners pleased the bombs sanctioned their plans …
[then] more bombs. More cries of Liberty. Unions,
monasteries, militants, all have their day;
Carmelites and car factories the same.
For the poet, these wider histories of destruction and rebuilding are intertwined with her own personal history: she notes that ‘the ring road … was built the year I was born,’ and her parents, who came to Coventry to work in the car factories, are buried in a cemetery close by one of the ring road’s flyovers. ‘Words wait in my flow to return,’ declares the poet, and the poems themselves are a kind of ring road, marking a circular return to home and the poet’s past. Ring road is history, geography, poem – and even human body: just as the ring road seems to contain the city’s past, so ‘the dead walk within our hearts’: ‘I stroll my body back to what holds within / its light, its stone, its bare bones.’
This is a past that does not vanish, but persists like light, held in the body, in stone, in the road, in Galvin’s haunted poetry; the dead may be dead, but they also ‘walk within our hearts.’ This a cyclical history that is not just a matter of circles of hell or destruction, but one which also involves persistence, renewal, possibility. The River Sherbourne becomes a potent symbol of this more optimistic element: routed under the ring road, it eventually returns to the surface to join the Sowe and Avon. ‘Culverted under ring road,’ Galvin writes, ‘the river sinks beneath the streets / holds its breath,’ but ‘Sherbourne will not die’:
The light will come –
this stream re-emerge; tunnels crack,
supporting towers collapse …
– all must repeat – in rubble, nettle, willow, fern.
About the reviewer
Jonathan Taylor is an author, editor, critic and lecturer. His books include the novels Melissa (Salt, 2015) and Entertaining Strangers (Salt, 2012) and the poetry collection Cassandra Complex (Shoestring, 2018). He directs the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is www.jonathanptaylor.co.uk.