These poems are not about Lady Godiva’s ride, but rather about those who lived, or live, in Coventry. The poems are like the voices heard by someone standing on a street corner, i.e. snatched conversations or brief comments, often inward-looking, more frequently casual but insightful interchanges.
There are sixty-two twelve-line poems in the sequence, with one long prose poem at the end. The poems are untitled and, while a cast of characters is given at the beginning, the voice of each poem is up to the reader to discern, which enhances the sense of eavesdropping on the street or in the bedroom:
My nephew was a hostage to the Danes
for my brother’s good behaviour in the war.
His father broke his word
to them and him: “Sons I can get more”,
he said, and launched his raid.
God’s gift my lovely, rarest of women,
companion and lover, counselor, friend,
who wakes in the dawn, in our bed, warm beside me,
as now and forever, together as one.
The listener hears a warrior’s tale, and Leofric’s love for Godiva. But one also hears the medieval Contemptus Mundi preacher with his scathing view of sexuality:
And the devil appeared to him in disguise:
a simpering whore making sure he’s seen
Her lips, Her eyes, Her breasts and thighs
and the ugly rent of Her sex between.
The cast would be incomplete without the unapologetic Peeping Tom, who speaks clearly:
And me? The patron saint of curiosity,
Tom cat, but blinded, never killed.
I saw Beauty, radiant, riding naked
through the grubby streets at dawn.
These are the voices of the past, but the people of present-day Coventry speak with the same passionate tones as those of the past in Guilar’s poetry. Immigrants and workers, the young and the elderly, the people who crowd the streets of any big city, here with echoes of Coventry’s past ringing clearly in their speeches:
That nameless place
where neck and shoulder meet, the way
a sudden movement turned the world to water.
With Lady Godiva’s statue in the rain,
patiently teaching anatomy to boys
before nudity was common TV.
Lady Godiva rides, still a focus for the voyeur, and Peeping Tom appears in every generation, in one guise or another:
When my dad told me she meant underwear,
I realized why Tommy’s nose was flat
from being squashed against newsagents’ glass
to see the cover girls on porno mags.
Guilar has brought together a cast of characters that speak out of history and from the present time, real people who live and breathe with engaging frankness. They are varied in personality, held here in small jewels of poetry that sparkle with wit and strength. These are people worth meeting.
Joanna M. Weston has had poetry, reviews, and short stories published in anthologies and journals for twenty years. Has two middle-readers, The Willow Tree Girl and Those Blue Shoes; also A Summer Father, poetry, published by Frontenac House of Calgary, all in print.