Soundings of Hellas by John Davidson

Soundings of Hellas. John Davidson (Wellington: Steele Roberts, 2015). ISBN 9781927242957. RRP $20. 68pp.

Reviewed by Molly Crighton


Soundings of Hellas by John Davidson is a deftly controlled tapestry of the Ancient world, modern New Zealand, and the complicated political and economic history of Greece and Italy. Gods appear on night beaches, in the faces of pedestrians, and from cranes above Wellington streets — Kavafy and Elytis are woven with football and Sophokles. Davidson is able to move between explorations of modern poverty and ancient glory, empathic poems about singular mythic figures, and poems that pick up Greek and New Zealand threads, and then lead the reader into a storied labyrinth.

The majority of the poems in this collection ambiguously explore questions of how the rich mythic history of the ancient world can co-exist with modern life. In “Waiting for the Tourists,” Davidson parallels a Kavafy poem to comment both on the philistine nature of tourism and its import to economic buoyancy:

Why is there nothing of real class on display here?
Because the tourists will be here today
and they are bored with quality…what will become of us in winter without tourists?
Those people were at least a temporary solution.

The gradual destruction of a country by war and poverty is returned to again and again:

Persian stormtroopers desecrated
the sacred hill…It was soon Philip’s turn…after that the Romans, marauding
tribes, Franks, Turks, Venetians,
hard-won independence bloodied
by dictators, Nazis, civil carnage…
(“Crisis is a Greek Word”)

However, in other poems in the collection, Davidson chooses particular mythic figures and forms an empathic portrait of them, isolated from the turmoil and juxtaposition explored in other poems. In “Odysseus Dives,” Odysseus is sympathetically imagined as a man past his prime, whose

body has lost condition, because Troy is now
a vague memory and even the harsh blandishments of Kalypso and the
attentions of Skylla and Charybdis
are docile pinpricks in his mind.

The myth becomes a man, who ‘dives down…until the day comes round when he / no longer breaks the surface.’ In particular, “The Judgement of Paris” reframes Paris in a more sympathetic light: ‘Put yourself in his shoes…Which would you have chosen?…How could he have known…that innocence / could drip blood?…Would you have done better?’ “Aphrodite,” too, plucks a mythic figure from untouchable history and places her within sight, within reach:

I met her face to face…her aura
suffusing the very trees
and outclasses blooms…

Against a grim background of austerity, the beauty of the Ancient world percolates the collection and lends a mythic edge to a world that could otherwise seem all too real. As Davidson writes in “Protos Heuretes”:

The ancient art
of storytelling is sometimes of greater
value in itself than the bland veracity
of a story’s content.

What colour is there in strict verisimilitude, when stories lend us gods and glory?

Originally from Wiltshire, Molly Crighton has lived in Dunedin for over a decade. She currently studies English at the University of Otago.

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