Visions of Valhalla: A Poetic Tribute to Richard Wagner by John Davidson.
Wellington: Steele Roberts (2016).
Reviewed by Elizabeth Coleman.
Visions of Valhalla is John Davidson’s fourth poetry book in four years and gives the reader an all-round view of the composer Richard Wagner. In an unstuffy and contemporary way Davidson’s uncluttered poems address such things as: Wagner’s operas – their librettos and musicality, their heroes and villains; the man himself – his mind and style, his habits; the times he lived through – his context; the poet’s emotional response to Wagner’s music and creativity; commentary on Wagner’s brilliance, imagination, skill, determination and creativity; impressions of human frailty.
The poems take a variety of forms and their style is never dull. In the excellent introduction to his book he explains: ‘The poems are a mix of the serious and not-so-serious. Most are concerned with aspects of Wagner’s life, with individual works or series of works, with his ongoing influence, and with reactions and responses to the man himself and his musical/dramatic legacy. In some cases, a Wagnerian theme is used as a point of entry for thoughts about contemporary issues’ (p 7). ‘Wagner is nothing if not a polarising figure, and his musical compositions are likewise objects of ongoing controversy’ (p 9). ‘There seems to be no let-up in the fascination Wagner has exerted on so many minds and hearts’ (p 11). Davidson has enhanced this fascination with his mindful collection of 57 poems.
The first poem, as in the opening to a grand opera, is “Pilgrim’s Chorus”, and reveres Wagner’s burial place in Bayreuth: ‘Be praised, Bayreuth, sweet and pure./ To our Pilgrimage, please be gracious/ (and by the way, we would have liked some tickets)’ (p 13).
Thus we are introduced, with operatic style, craft and humour, to the composer’s fan-base.
The next poem is “The Year 1813” and places the reader in historical context, the year of Wagner’s birth: ‘…the first pineapples/ were planted in Hawai’i…Pride and Prejudice had left an impression/on polite drawing room sofas… European explorers were now/ pushing westward from Sydney…’ We are left in no doubt as to the importance of the date: ‘But nothing could compare with the 22nd of May’ (p 14).
The last poem is entitled “The year 1883” – the year of Wagner’s death – and finishes the collection in similar style: ‘… oxygen/ was liquefied for the first time and/ Krakatoa erupted. The Adventures/ of Pinocchio and Treasure Island came/ to the world’s enchanted readership …’ Further, ‘But the 13th of February is the day/ to remember’ (p 79).
This poetic sandwich is filled with aspects of Wagner’s life and work and is most satisfying. In the third poem, we experience the initiation of the author at his first Wagner opera. It concludes with the lines: ‘Walking back to my hotel/ through Covent Garden’s/ dining streets after this/ awakening I savoured/ the screaming in my skull’ (p15).
In “The Woman Problem” we are told: ‘Creative artists seem to be given a longer lead/ when it comes to personal behaviour, especially/ of a sexual nature, and Wagner was a romantic/ hero of the 19th century. What would you expect?’ (p 28).
In a more serious tone, “Trauermusik” – (Seigfried’s Funeral March) – is solemn, tangible and moving: ‘This is the music that follows us all/ to our marriage with earth or ash,/ its impulsive, brassy notes disguised/ as tears’ (p 45).
Visions of Valhalla is an attractive book with a stern portrait of Richard Wagner on the front cover, belying its light-heartedness in some places. It is a scholarly work on a classical subject which also gives ample access for curious readers. Illustrations are from the author’s collection, the main features being images of postmarked Wagnerian stamps and grand operatic characters, adding colour and charm.
Although Davidson describes himself as obsessed with his subject matter, he avoids raising Wagner to sainthood and, partly as a consequence of this, draws a non-Wagnerite such as myself right into his interesting collection. Explanatory notes at the book’s end are extremely helpful. A lack of knowledge of Wagner and his operas means that presently for me some mysteries remain within the poetry but many questions are forming and a fascination has developed for his musical works. I’m delighted to learn that Tristan and Isolde is showing soon at my local cinema. Davidson’s inscription is simple: ‘to Wagnerians, past and present’. He could have added ‘future’.
Elizabeth Coleman lives in Waikanae and has a strong interest in the poetry scene on the Kapiti Coast. She has been published in journals and magazines such as 4th Floor, takahē; in anthologies including Dear to Me, Swings & Roundabouts; has participated in performance poetry entitled Eyes in the Skies, and has judged competition poetry.
First published takahe 89