Coningsby returns…

In 2015 I published the equivalent of a poetry novella – more than a pamphlet, less than a collection – called Humfrey Coningsby: Poems, Complaints, Explanations and Demands for Satisfaction. I believe it is still available from the publisher (the lovely Valley Press) and the more thoughtful bookmongers. By chance, the poet and writer Jeremy Wikeley let slip that he had written a review of it for Cadaverine magazine, and that he was happy to have me re-print it here. Of course I’m delighted to have a review for a book that is almost forgotten, and I completely agree with his criticisms. I would now not be so orientalist. Sadly the under-theme of refugees is still so current. May thanks to Jem for his permission to share this here.

A Review of Humfrey Coningsby, Jonathan Davidson, Valley Press, 37pp, £6.99 by Jeremy Wikeley

Humfrey Coningsby, whose reclining stone figure can be found in a church in Neen Sollars, Shropshire, was a sixteenth century gentleman, traveller and soldier. After several trips to the Levant, he set out on foot for Constantinople in 1610 and was never seen again.

Jonathon Davidson (The Living Room, 1994; Early Train, 2011) has re-discovered Coningsby wandering through history. His new pamphlet follows him as he drifts between past and present, East and West, from English villages to the chambers of the Sultan’s daughter, over several seas and between numerous war zones.

In Coningsby, Jonathon Davidson has found a generous vehicle for his own observant, humorous and deftly unaffected talents, as well as a useful way into the distant past, by no means an easy place for poetry. Davidson has a keen sense of the (un)importance of historical accuracy: 

Whatever a sixteenth century gentleman would wear,
that is what Coningsby is wearing beneath his doublet
and hose. And then he is naked.

Throughout the pamphlet, historical pastiches channel the frustrations of modern travel, from the fatalistic shrugs (‘like soil sliding down a hillside’) of the locals who cannot explain the lack of Wi-Fi in ‘Waiting for a Sign’, to the ‘one postcard’ that a petulant Coningsby buys from Troy.

Coningsby is at his most engaging at his extremes, in equal parts powerful and powerless, at times a disarmingly brutal English gentleman on a quixotic journey through Europe, casually running down peasants as he drives through Bohemia, at others a vulnerable traveller in an unforgiving world. Towards the end of the pamphlet, he gets lost among crowds of modern refugees, appearing as an

oddity in his doublet and hose, his
ruff now sad plumage, and his boots
stained with tears…

Coningsby is also a lover. ‘The Sultan’s daughter’ rescues him from the Bosporus and nurses him back to health before releasing him ‘from himself’, which sounds like an attractive prospect. These poems are among the most lyrical in the collection, though on balance I found them the least convincing: for all their wit and delicacy, the ‘soft touches’, and apricots can’t quite break out of their orientalist associations.

Davidson is in no mood to avoid the wider story of the Middle East, however. Coningsby is both a victim and a perpetrator – arriving in the Levant as violent crusader, he soon becomes one body among countless others, first as a refugee, later a corpse. There is something brave about the way in which Davidson blurs those roles, and it is a risk that pays off, too: the poems bear witness, rather than cast judgement.

Davidson’s fluid approach to history highlights the fact that the recent tragedies in the region are the fat end of a very long wedge of human suffering, a sense of perspective doesn’t preclude emotional impact. The stand-out ‘We Have No Record’ is chillingly contemporary:

…ashes from a fire
blown across the borders, blown into
the controlled zones, the holding pens
the hangers and arrival halls of hell.

Very little is known about the real Humfrey Coningsby, a fact which Davidson makes the most of. Historians will tell you that while a glut of sources doesn’t inhibit mystery, there is only so long you can spin out an absence. Which is a roundabout way of saying that, at twenty-four poems, Humfrey Coningsby is just the right length for its (lack of) subject matter. Like any good companion, Coningsby doesn’t overstay his welcome.

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