Cathedral residencies have become quite popular for poets in recent years and some, such as this one, have led to publication. This collection, however, amounts to far more than an imaginative sequence of poems, it is also a prose diary covering the period from mid-2019 to Easter 2021 which offers up a personal record of what amounts to a ‘pilgrimage’ describing, among other things, the author’s reflections on her own creativity and her insights into the life and work of the cathedral. Her journal also expresses something of the emotion felt when the building was closed due to lockdown. Above all, these poems explore her profound faith and her love for the building itself, a building which was built between 1084 and 1504 and represents every style of English architecture from Norman to Perpendicular Gothic.
Right from the start we get a sense of Bonnick’s humility and awe at the project she is about to undertake. We also get an insight into her approach to poetry: ‘when I write a poem from a person’s point of view, I get myself into a position of opening up to hear their voice …. I read as much as I can, I imagine their world from all the senses, I try to place myself in their day, their needs, their dreams, their boundaries. I try to see what they see.’
The sequence of poems follows the liturgical year. Right from the start, Bonnick informs us of her intentions to write a series of poems on the Stations of the Cross and, as a counterbalance, to include a number of poems involving women in the Gospels.
In addition to an engagement with the Bible, these poems also chart her engagement with the staff of the cathedral: not only the clergy, choir and congregation, but also the vergers, the tour guides, the bell-ringers, the stonemasons and the cleaners. No-one is left out. Her residency brings her into contact with every part of the cathedral: the nave and the side aisles, the chapels, the undercroft, the Song School, the belfry, the dizzy heights of the upper vaults, the library, the education department and the café.
In the opening poem, ‘Worcester Cathedral’, Bonnick sets the scene:
day I take care to walk
the other side of the street
catch sight of my cathedral
past as I walk on,
tiny roofs, chimneys and aerials.
know its every mood;
and tinted by sunset,
under sombre skies,
lit against midnight."
Even though she associates herself with it so intimately that she refers to it as ‘my cathedral’, she is still very much in awe of it: ‘I have a massive sense of humbleness. Who on earth am I to even try to represent this 1000- year-old building, repository of faith, beauty and sanctuary for centuries? I feel tiny, insignificant.’ Later on, she realises that she doesn’t have ‘to conquer the building or ‘smash the brief’….’I just have to add my own particular hand-chiselled brick to the monumental whole’. Here is the opening stanza of ‘Ropesight’ inspired by a discussion with the bell-ringers. Bonnick’s use of technical terminology adds to the enjoyment of the poem:
hand is there before the conscious thought.
sally fits the palm before the pull,
pull before the headstock turns
gudgeon pins, and the bell,
nearly five hundred kilogrammes,
its massive swing,
the clapper meets the lip
the ever-smiling mouth
sounds the first chime of the peal.
In the second half of the book, Bonnick’s sequence of poems on the women in the Gospels succeed on several fronts. Not only do they serve as a retelling of the Biblical narrative, but they also bring the women alive to a modern audience by voicing their feelings and emotions in a contemporary manner. Like the sequence depicting the Stations of the Cross, these poems are a remarkable achievement. The collection is all the more impressive given that many of Bonnick’s original plans for her residency were turned upside down by the pandemic and had to be reshaped ‘on the hoof’. In many ways, the collection is all the stronger for having been born out of adversity. Readers will identify with this time that they, too, have lived through, and be inspired by this collection which celebrates the enduring presence of the cathedral and its place in the city. Fully recommended.
Amanda Bonnick, Solace in the Silence, Black Pear Press, £7.00