Through the Door of St Paul’s Cathedral

Alia Cassam reviews the 2nd in the series of events as part of ‘Through the Door’ a collaboration between Poet in the City and Archives for London. In this event, poet Imtiaz Dharker launches new poems from the Cathedral archives.

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As Imitiaz Dharker finishes reading ‘Channel of vision’, one of her new Through the Door poems, there is glint in her eye. In a stone room by the Crypt inside St Paul’s Cathedral, she is telling tales of unexploded bombs, near misses, fallen cherubs, acts of bravery, Bovril billboards in an ever-changing London skyline, watchful apostles. And despite the quiet of the audience’s rapt attention the Cathedral has its own ideas – Dharker’s first reading to the public, about the life and memory of this great building, is merrily accompanied by the sound of bells ringing, an organ playing. It’s an apt soundtrack to a brilliant new collection of poems.

Seven poets in seven archives, that was the premise for Through the Door, and in each case, the aim and the hope was to literally ‘open the door’ – both to poetry and to London’s incredibly rich treasure-trove of archive material. In the case of Imtiaz Dharker and St Paul’s, the pairing seems to have been serendipitous. When she was approached and asked if she would like to like to take St Paul’s as her subject, she had already started writing poems about London and the Cathedral – “I live just down the road” she says. Being part of her life and landscape already, it seemed obvious subject matter. In fact, during the evening she describes how if she leans far enough out from her balcony she has a view of St Paul’s looking back at her.

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Dharker’s pre-existing relationship with the place was just part of it. The really interesting thing about Through the Door and the St Paul’s Archive, is the way it threw the spotlight on how poems themselves come about. As well as the collaboration between two different organisations, Poet in the City and Archives for London, there was also the collaboration between the poet herself and a host of others at the Cathedral: Archivist Sarah Radford, Cannon Mark Oakley, Simon Carter who looks after the Collections and Librarian Jo Wisdom. The dizzying proportions of the Project were not dissimilar to something from Alice in Wonderland, and without these guides to accompany her through a maze of material including a vast archive of objects, architectural plans, and a library which alone holds over 21,500 manuscripts, books and pamphlets, the poems could not have been written.

The Project has also proved to be a fascinating re-examination of the roles of poet and archivist, as well as their methods of working. In her Introduction to the poems, Dharker figures herself almost as detective rather than poet – “what I really did in St Paul’s was just eavesdrop” and “I was following clues”. In an interview with her before the event begins, she points to the creativity of the work of an archivist like Radford, which is not dissimilar to that of a poet in piecing together and imagining lives, scenarios, from a heap of objects and images.

And it is Sarah Radford who begins the evening with a succinct and comprehensive presentation about the array of documents and objects which inspired these poems. They range from newspaper reports during the time of the Blitz, haunting black and white photographs of London bomb-scapes, the Cathedral’s architectural plans, medals of heroism, and a cherub statue which was part of a high altar and fell hurtling into the rubble when the Cathedral received a direct hit during the Second World War. It was found displaced and dented, notably on the left side of its chest, leaving Dharker to write that seeing it fallen like this “dents the heart”. Such items lead themselves to become six new poems – the Cathedral Poems.

Interweaving past with present, and delivered with Dharker’s characteristic hypnotic warm tones, the opener, ‘Cherub, St Paul’s’, takes the statue of the bomb-damaged fallen cherub to be representative of the child caught in war, and of the destruction of the innocent – “The one it chose as prey was you, at play”, “Your ribs caved in where you took the blow./Fallen, you are statue still”. It is a heart-breaking poem. Rather than give a voice to the archive, here Dharker is instead speaking directly to it – “What are we to make of you?/A guardian, a miracle, thrown/into the nave or on to today’s front page” making these poems sing out with contemporary relevance. Lines such as “In the aftermath,/ the hesitant dust falls back to blanket you,/rubbles tries to cradle you” brings to mind MacNiece in Prayer Before Birth, with its humanity and its rhythmic poetry.

Dharker’s longstanding preoccupation with words (as in her well known poem ‘Speech balloon’ which she always reads with such relish) is again evident in these new poems, where she continues with a self-conscious interrogation and love of language as a material in and of itself, as powerful and wonderful as the bricks and mortar that create concrete structures and Cathedrals. The poem about the bomb which landed in Dean’s Yard and almost threatened to blow up the Cathedral, ‘Unexploded’, is followed by a simple yet powerful three-liner about the sermons of John Donne, the Cathedral’s famous priest-poet. Here in ‘Exploded’, she writes simply “A prayer is said,/a story told. Under the dome/the Word explodes”. This is a poetry and a world as much about the explosive power of language as of any bomb.

‘Ringing the changes’ and ‘Channel of vision’ are both great London poems, and it is a delight to see Dharker now turn to a poetic figuring of London in her work when in the past she has written with such imagination, eloquence and wit, about other cities close to her heart – Mumbai in particular (‘Tiffin Box Talks’ and ‘Living Space/One Breath’ are great examples) which convey a different kind of architecture and a different kind of hustle and bustle. ‘Ringing the changes’ is unmistakably London – “The market has lost its sound track,/…All the usual effing/and blinding has stopped for the day”. It is a London where “The Grocers sing out/on a note you could eat, seasoned by Salters”.

Whilst taking subjects such as war, words, and a city in the process of endlessly remaking itself, Dharker in these new poems also takes St Paul’s duel identity as spiritual centre and icon of the city, and deftly weaves them together to create a poetry that acknowledges both, especially in poems such as ‘Channel of vision’ and ‘Ringing the changes’. The Cathedral, with its long association with state occasions, and located as it is in the heart of the city, has become a barometer of sorts for our time. The recent Occupy Movement, which found itself on the footsteps of the Cathedral, is still fresh in the memory. Images about the past offer a recognisable present – “logos of banks” and “barefaced glass,/the rise and rise that eats the sky” (‘Channel of vision’).

But it is in her last poem, ‘The Fabrick’, which best brings together the personal and the public – the outer architecture with the inner human being, to present a poetry of hope, faith, humanity. In the final two lines, she asks us to “Find, inside the resonating space/the way to live, the living poem”.

Canon Mark Oakley, hosting the event, points out that what Dharker is doing here is an act of remembering of the best kind – a ‘re-membering’, a creative putting back together. If St Paul’s can be said to represent to some degree the spiritual, political, and social life of a nation, then Dharker’s looking at the Archive history is not just the re-membering of an iconic building, but as Oakley suggests, it is also a re-membering, a putting back together, of ourselves.

You can find out more about the poetry and the project here: http://throughthedoorproject.tumblr.com/tagged/Main

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