Essays on Francis Webb's Poetry

Recognising the 'face of love' in Francis Webb's 'The Canticle' 

To say 'God' is to explode immanence...There's a sense in which poetry answers to the absence of the Word, the unique master word that underwrites all other words. Not even the word 'God' can do that, for as soon as you pronounce the divine name it divides like spilt mercury. As soon as it enters the world, the Word is lost. Writing poems is a search for that Word.         

Kevin Hart, SALT

Francis Webb's poetry is always involved in 'the Search for something' ('Sturt and the Vultures'). That 'Search', as Judith Wright has noted, is directed towards an understanding of 'the truth about man and his relationships, to himself, to other men, and in the end, to God'. It is by necessity a linguistic search, an attempt through words to locate an incarnate Word. Kevin Hart's explanation of his poetic engagement with the word/Word relationship could apply equally to Webb. Hart's 'explode' captures the powerful destructive force harboured in the creative moment of Incarnation. This paradoxical force operates as a source of both inspiration and anxiety throughout Webb's poetry as it strives imaginatively to come to terms with the doctrine of Word made flesh and its attendant contradictions, reversals and in a sense 'schizophrenic' potential. Webb's poetry is one of quest and questioning. It is the experience of the search. It is the experience of the attempt to write 'God'. 

Death and the Woman: Looking at Francis Webb's 'Lament for St Maria Goretti'

How could one sustain, how could one save the visible, if not by creating the language of absence, of the invisible?

Rainer Maria Rilke

Francis Webb's poetry is most often discussed in terms of its linguistic difficulty, its preoccupation with failed explorer figures and questions of national identity, and its affirmation of the poet's Catholic faith. It is certainly a densely crafted and linguistically complex poetry, and at times Webb's choice and manipulation of metaphor and imagery offer a sense of disorienting impenetrability. Yet as one 'slipping image' gives way to the next one finds that Webb's is a poetry above all of absence and silence. The felt absence is acutely religious in nature, but too often Webb's Catholicism is taken as a give and his poetry interpreted with the framework of Catholic belief. That framework of belief is ruptured repeatedly by the imaginative vision of the poetry, a vision that struggles with the possibility of an absent God and the certainty of an unknowable one.

Tracing the Spectre of Death in Francis Webb's Last Poems

In much of Francis Webb's poetry 'the tale brings death' ('A Drum for Ben Boyd'), but death remains largely off-stage. The poetry seeks to dramatise the arduous journey towards death rather than the moment of death itself. in 'A Death at Winson Green' the repetitive drum of 'dead' closes every stanza and insistently drives the poem towards the moment of death. But the poem refuses to name that moment. It eschews the space of death and remains focused on the gaping bed:

Time crouches, watching, near his face of snows.                                                                                                                    He is all life, thrown on the gaping bed,                                                                                                                               Blind, silent, in a trance, and shortly, dead. 

There is a significant shift, however, in Webb's last poems in which death is more deeply explored and, in 'Sturt and the Vultures' (1970), boldly named... Elsewhere i have discussed how death and the void are explored in Webb's final poem 'Lament for St Maria Goretti' (1973). I want, here, to trace how death and the space it occupies begin to be more fully confronted in the poetry, and then offer a reading of the relationship between poetry and death in 'Sturt and the Vultures'.