Presence

David Boulton reviews a 2004 book of poetry by Dinah Livingstone. Published by Katabasis, 85pp, 7.95, ISBN 0904872394. David Boulton is a writer and broadcaster, and former editor of SOF magazine. Dinah took up the post of SOF editor just after the publication of this review. Presence. Katabasis, London 2003, 0904872394. Reviewed by David Boulton.

Readers who only know Dinah Livingstone as the feisty woman who dared to stand up at a Sea of Faith conference and accuse Don Cupitt of allowing a "mess of postmodernism" to sap his (and SoF's) social radicalism may be surprised by the lyrical tenderness of her new poetry collection. Those, on the other hand, who have met her in her earlier collections will know what to expect: a delightfully, deftly-crafted celebration of her life-long passions, poetry and radical politics.

The first part of Presence, 'London and Country', combines personal memories (her old house on 'the uglier side of Camden Town', her 'tiny daughter climbing the monstrous slide' in St Martin's Gardens, her 'mother in her New Look dress') with a vivid awareness of the city's radical past: Keats meeting Coleridge in Millfield Lane, a 'nod to Blake' in Bunhill Fields. When Dinah marches on May Day from Clerkenwell to Trafalgar Square she does so in the company of William Morris, the words of his hedge-priest John Ball ringing in her ears: 'Fellowship is life, and lack of fellowship is death: fellowship is heaven and lack of fellowship is hell.'

All those conversations, words,
are the web that sustains me,
the hammock that rocks me...
the waking stuff I am made of

But Dinah's fierce, beautiful, unfashionable, unbending radicalism is not content with romanticising the past. She has spent much of her life championing the revolutionary movements of South and Central America, translating their poetry and prose, exploring and expounding their liberation theologies. Presence contains a poem-diary of her trip to Mexico in 2001 when she joined the Zapatistas on the march from Chiapas to Mexico City. A shorter poem is called 'Refugees':

We see your faces everywhere, your desperate
crawl through rat-infested sewage pipe,
leap across lethal rail...
I didn't invite you but you've got to me;
I can't exclude your presence from my mind,
roaring for justice or a still small voice.
You won't allow me my complacency.
You infiltrate my idleness with scent
of a sage order, taste of common peace.

God makes several guest appearances (or guest disappearances): a God who haunts by his absence.

The Sunday morning church bell tolls
slowly over the flat fields.
Few follow it and I will not.

But among her panoply of radical heroes is William Tyndale, first and greatest translator of the English Bible.A note on the fly-leaf tells us Presence was first published on 'October 6th, William Tyndale's Day'.

Arrested you asked for a candle
in your winter prison. Then they burnt you...

The radical socialist magazine 'Red Pepper' commented on an earlier Livingstone collection, 'Time on Earth': 'Her poetry speaks persistently and openly of the struggle for the heart's hope of utopia in a language at once celebratory and defiant'. The heart's hope for utopia... We could do with more of it as we move into our post-postmodern exploration and promotion of religious faith as a wholly human creation, connecting it up with the radical tradition which shouts a loud and strong 'Yes!' to Dinah's question as she meditates on Milton in St Giles Cripplegate:

...Is another world possible
with new awareness like a seed that sprouts
from compost into something huge and strange?
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